CALIFORNIA’S RACING PARADISE
By Steve Schuelein
Photographs Compliments of Del Mar Race Track
VIRTUALLY EVERY RACING FAN IS STRUCK BY A SIMILAR FEELING on their first visit to Del Mar and subsequent ones. SOMETHING IS DIFFERNET HERE, in a very good way. The San Diego County coastal track will sound its siren call for the 76th year when it opens its traditional meet on July 17, running for 49 days. The new fall season starts November 7 and runs until November 30.
Again you can look for a smile on every face, as co-founder Bing Crosby croons on a record each racing day, as fans jam the plant whether they take a plane, a train or a car. Opening day drew 43,030 in 2006.
I began coming to Del Mar in 1982 and have attended every meet since, first as a track publicist and since 1990 as a turf writer, and the magic is still there. During that time, California introduced inter-track wagering in 1988 and Del Mar its old county fair grandstand with a modern $80-million plant in 1993, but the magnetic charm remains.
The bottom line in making Del Mar a special venue is that everyone there seems to have FUN in capital letters. Del Mar capitalizes on a short meet, run at an ideal time, in an ideal place.
Although the horses and horsemen are mostly the same as those competing at the Santa Anita and Hollywood Park meets, the local San Diego-area market is fresh and hungry after no live racing for 10 months.
Much like the successful shorter meets at Saratoga, Keeneland and Oaklawn, Del Mar is the jewel of the Southern California circuit. Predictably warm sunny weather in a beautiful locale along the ocean with ample restaurants and other sports attractions make Del Mar the perfect destination. And the dates coincide with summer recess from school and vacation time for many.
Nothing is perfect. The enormous growth of the area has brought with it corresponding traffic problems. The facility could use a wider turf course and the main track can become congested during morning training.
But the plusses strongly outweigh the minuses, evidenced by handle and attendance figures that have catapulted the one-time small-town track to the top echelon in the nation. Following on the heels of a robust 2012 season, Del Mar did even better in 2013 with an average handle of $13,036,132 while attendance averaged 17,656.
The attraction of the track traces back to 1937, when it was opened by Crosby and Pat O’Brien. Author Nancy Hanks Ewing wrote in Del Mar: Looking Back, “The newspapers far and wide had a field day with the colorful and exciting opening day, and society reporters were ecstatic about the Hollywood bright lights in attendance, calling Del Mar ‘Movieland’s Own Track.’ Bing and Pat were there of course, and Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy was honorary steward for the day. Other screen stars there included Barbara Stanwyck and her husband Robert Taylor, Una Merkel, Bette Davis, Walter Connolly and Bob ‘Bazooka’ Burns. Clem McCarthy, the nation’s leading sportscaster of the day, was also on hand.
“Del Mar exploded and the boom could be heard all the way up to Oceanside,” continued Ewing. “Suddenly, with the coming of the fair and especially with the opening of the track, quiet little Del Mar burst its seams with a popularity no one had envisioned. Hotel Del Mar and its guest cottages were packed that first racing season, and so were all the accommodations up along the coast. The ‘exclusive resort, free from noise and confusion’ was not that any more – and never would be again. Del Mar had been discovered.”
FUTURE DISCOVERERS WOULD BE SMITTEN TIME AND AGAIN
Novelist Bill Murray, first bitten by the Del Mar bug 1966, wrote in Del Mar: Its Life and Good Times: “Del Mar still evokes the relaxed, easygoing feeling of what horse racing used to be before the advent of the tote board and the discovery by the politicians that there was money to be made from it. Eddie Read, who was the track’s publicity executive for many years, once summed up Del Mar as a place ‘where nobody’s in a hurry but the horses.’ The desperate, hunted look of many of the patrons at the larger tracks is missing here and so it’s possible to imagine again a vanished era when racing was a more casual sport and pure fun.”
Murray continued, “WHAT THIS IS, IT’S MORE OF A MOOD, A WAY OF LIFE“.The sports writer Oscar Otis, who was here at the beginning, once told me. ‘It’s racing, all right, but with this important difference – it’s a great place to relax.’”
Joe Harper, president, CEO and general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, has been linked with the ascent of the track since assuming leadership in 1978. Grandson of legendary Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, whose hit films included The Greatest Show on Earth, Harper had tried to produce ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’.
Harper attempted to put his finger on Del Mar’s unique appeal. “The physical plant is our biggest selling card,” said Harper of the six-story structure that replaced an antiquated grandstand while preserving the Spanish mission architecture. “It’s new and beautiful,” continued Harper. “It’s a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the United States. It’s perceived as a fun place to be.
“You have to treat your patrons the right way,” said Harper. “When you come home from a party and said you had a fun time, that’s how we try to make Del Mar: a 49-day party. The atmosphere you create pretty much sets the tone and personality of the meet.
“The right atmosphere gets you the right people that gets you the right atmosphere,” continued Harper. “It’s the chicken-or-the-egg type of thing. We open the doors and the palm trees are swaying in the breeze, the bands are playing, the margaritas are tasty, and it’s full of beautiful people. It’s just a fun place to go.
“We see it in our employees who go from track to track. It’s a different attitude down here. It’s a positive place. We work hard to make it positive.”
Harper said the success would have been impossible to achieve without hard work behind the scenes. “I just go back to the days we weren’t doing that well and were ranked 20th,” said Harper. “We had the same ocean, the same beaches, the same short meet. One friend at another track says our marketing concept should be to just unlock the front door. I wish it were that simple.”
Sixty-seven years of racing have produced enough history to fill a book. The track was first put on the national map in 1938 when Seasbiscuit edged Ligaroti by a nose in a famous match race.
Hollywood celebrities have continued to flock to the track, and devoted fan Jimmy Durante was honored with the naming of an adjacent boulevard for him. Johnny Longden became the world’s winningest rider here with victory No. 4,871 in 1956 and remained on top until 1970, when Bill Shoemaker assumed the throne with victory No. 6,033 here.
The $1-million Pacific Classic was inaugurated in 1991, with hometown horse Best Pal proving a popular winner for owners John and Betty Mabee. In 1996, a track-record 44,181 fans crowded the track to watch Cigar attempt to break Citation’s record of 16 straight victories, only to see the two-time Horse of the Year upset by Longshot Dare and Go in a shocking result that silenced the throngs.
Veteran publicity director Dan Smith, who has been associated with racing at Del Mar for more than 40 years, has seen the skinny little kid on the beach evolve into a muscleman on the Southern California circuit. “When I first started working here in 1964, Del Mar was the poor stepchild of Santa Anita and Hollywood Park,” said Smith. “It was a Navy town, dependent on Los Angeles for patronage for business, but not much money was being put into the place. It was held together by paper clips and rubber bands.”
Smith looked at 1969 as a critical date in Del Mar history. That year, Governor Ronal Reagan established Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, a non-dividend paying organization headed by horse owner and businessman Clement Hirsch. “I think that’s when Del Mar turned the corner,” said Smith. “Improvements in the barn area and clubhouse followed.”
Many followers do not realize how far down Del Mar was at that time. “In 1969, Del Mar ranked 32nd in attendance with a daily average of 9,600,” Smith pointed out. “In handle, we ranked 22nd with a daily average of $985,807. That put us $501 ahead of Pomona.”
Smith thought Del Mar had a winning formula for its meteoric rise. “I think one of the advantages Del Mar has is that it does not go on forever,” he said. “It’s fresh. It’s not taken for granted. It’s a special meet.”
One of those special bonuses is listening to the Crosby song “Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” the phrase was coined by Mrs. Herb Polesie, wife of one of Crosby’s writers. Crosby and Johnny Burke provided the lyrics, which were set to music by James V. Monaco. Crosby sang it live that year, and his record has been played before the first race and after the last on every racing day since:
Where the turf meets the surf
Down at old Del Mar
Take a plane, take a train, take a car
There’s a smile on every face
And a winner in each race
Where the turf meets the surf at Del Mar.
Some traditions should never be changed.
Steven Schuelein (is a free-lance writer who covers Southern California racing and 3 contributor to Thoroughbred Times)