As race season begins, we reflect on the history of this local icon.
Get your hats! Place your bets! And away we go!
On the sunny afternoon of July 3, 1937, the original laid-back Californian himself, Bing Crosby, stood at a turnstile collecting tickets for his new seaside racetrack, Del Mar. Having been bitten by the racing bug, Crosby and a bunch of his Hollywood buddies (among them Pat O’Brien, Oliver Hardy and Gary Cooper) hatched the idea for a horse palace by the ocean where you could play all day, party all night and leave the cares of the world behind.
The group’s first meeting took place at Warner Brothers studios in Burbank where the Del Mar Turf Club was formed. From the start, Hollywood fingerprints were all over this racetrack.
That first day, more than 15,000 people came for a look. Word got around fast; there were more than 18,000 guests by the second afternoon. The Hollywood connection continued for decades at Del Mar (halted only by a three-year shutdown of racing during World War II) with Mickey Rooney, Ava Gardner, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Jimmy Durante.
The Santa Fe Railroad launched a special racetrack train from Los Angeles to Del Mar that carried Hollywood stars and, at times, late-running horses. The party started on the train. If the train was late, the races were delayed. It became a Del Mar tradition for the fans in the grandstand to start cheering when they saw the train turn the bend just before the station.
In 1938, Del Mar hosted the historic match race between Seabiscuit and the South American import Ligaroti. The race pitted Bing Crosby and Lin Howard against Lin’s father, Charles S. Howard, famous owner of Seabiscuit and a director of the Del Mar Turf Club. It was a $25,000 winner-take-all contest that drew 20,000 to the track and was heard coast-to-coast on the NBC radio network. At the end of a ferocious battle that saw the horses trading head bobs and the riders trading whip slashes, “The Biscuit” won by a nose in 1:49, breaking the nine-furlong track record by an amazing four seconds.
In recent times the track has become a fertile proving ground for many of the nation’s best horses and horsemen. Champions race at Del Mar each summer and they are trained by Hall of Fame conditioners with famous names like Ron McAnally, Richard Mandella, Neil Drysdale, Bob Baffert and Jerry Hollendorfer, and their world-class jockey colony is led by stars like Hall of Famer Mike Smith along with Rafael Bejarano, Joe Talamo and Martin Garcia.
In 1991, the track instituted its richest and most prestigious event ever: the $1Million Pacific Classic. The Grade I feature run at the classic American distance of a mile and one quarter quickly became one of the country’s top summer prizes, annually drawing many of the best horses in training.
It seems like everything and everybody needs an overhaul over time and in 1993 the track opened with a fully refurbished grandstand, an $80 million project that took two years to complete while racing continued. The “new” Del Mar retained the look and many of the touches of the old facility, but with more space – 550,000 square feet, to be exact – and more amenities. There are 4,700 more seats for a grand total of 14,300; 25 more bars for a grand total of 41; 20 more concession stands now totaling 36, and 750 pari-mutuel windows, up from 442. Del Mar is considered one of the jewels of the American racing scene.
For the 2015 season, Del Mar has chosen to return to a natural dirt surface for its main track for reasons of safety keyed around two notable elements: First, the previous main track surface, synthetic Polytrack, had reached the end of its useful life, and, second, consultation with racing surface experts and strong encouragement from industry stakeholders such as the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers. The well-regarded type of dirt (called “El Segundo Sand”) was installed over winter and is currently in use at both Santa Anita and Los Alamitos, meaning for the first time all major racing surfaces in Southern California will be uniform, allowing for the easiest and safest transitions for horses and riders.
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (DMTC), a non-dividend paying corporation comprised of notable California owners and breeders, assumed operation of Del Mar through a 20-year lease with the state in 1970. That lease was subsequently renewed for another 20 years starting in 1990 and again in 2010. When the DMTC began operations, the track’s daily handle was $1,985,807 and its daily attendance averaged 9,684. Under the DMTC’s reign, those numbers have risen significantly and remained exceptional in handle and attendance.
Of course, traditions evolve over time but one of the most reliable at Del Mar is that of wearing a hat on Opening Day. Back in the 1930s, people wore hats every day. Today, the track holds its annual “One and Only Truly Fabulous Hat Contest” on Opening Day, showcasing the most elaborate and eye-catching chapeaus. Even if they don’t participate in the contest, a majority of the crowd wears a hat on Opening Day. It’s just tradition.
Del Mar made history once more in 2010 when Thoroughbred superstar Zenyatta won her third straight Clemente L. Hirsch Stakes and ran her perfect record to 18 for 18 in front of the 32,536 spirited fans.
In 2011, Del Mar hosted the fifth match race in track history: the Battle of the Exes. The race pitted top jockeys (and former betrothed) Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland against each other. Smith won.
Celebrating 76 calendar years, Del Mar saw one of its most successful seasons in history in 2012, including an Opening Day that drew a record 47,339 racing fans.
The 2014 summer meet finished with a total handle of $439,651,924 in all-sources bets for a daily average handle of $12,121,554 – making it California’s most successful race meet by far and continuing its run as one of the nation’s foremost Thoroughbred headquarters.
Additionally in 2014, for the first time ever, Del Mar held a second fall racing meet, Bing Crosby Season. The closing of Hollywood Park allowed Del Mar to pick up fall dates and offer first-class racing for a second time. The Bing Crosby meet will be a new fall racing tradition featuring old school vibes along with big stakes races such as the Hollywood Derby, concerts, events and family activities. Opening Day for Bing Crosby Season is October 29, and runs through November 29, 2015.
What’s remained constant since 1937 is the feeling that no matter who you are, one of the best places you can be a on a sunny summer afternoon is at Del Mar, watching some of the most gifted horses and horsemen in the world try to reach the finish line first.
Here’s to the 2015 Race Season, and Away they Go!
All photos courtesy of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.