Summer’s hottest ticket in this town is Del Mar Racetrack’s opening day. Horses, hats and heels define the exhilarating event. Let me set the scene. The paddock where the thoroughbreds are paraded is crowded with anxious owners, curious onlookers, cowboy-hatted enthusiasts and multitudinous news crews covering the seasonal debut. Like guided missiles, creative haberdasherists make their way to Opening Day’s Hat Contest (this year’s challenge was a brisk wind that sometimes uprooted a towering headdresses from its model’s head). Cigar-toting men escort high-heeled women as regulars make their way through the maze of fans into the grandstand before the starting 2 pm post time. It’s a people-watching mecca, one that occurs annually each Wednesday through Sunday from mid-July to early-September, but one that is over-the-top on the first day of each season.
However, it is the track’s Hollywood-linked history that truly sets it apart from other horse-racing venues. From the beginning it was star-studded. Conceived in 1937 by a partnership, it included three well-known celebrities – Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien and Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame). Though popular crooner Bing Crosby was at the front gate personally greeting fans on the first opening day, it was on August 12 the following season that the Del Mar Racetrack officially came into its own.
Host of a race between two horses for a $25,000 winner-take-all purse, NBC Radio covered the stand-off live, a first in the history of racing. The horses were Argentinean thoroughbred, Ligaroti ridden by jockey Noel Richardson, and Seabiscuit, commandeered by George Woolf. The result: Seabiscuit won by a nose.
Ensuing years took the Del Mar Racetrack to another rung up the ladder of success as it became Hollywood’s summer playground, with celebrities such as Jimmy Durante, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz considered regulars. All of this ended during World War II when the track closed for two years and was used as a United States Marine Corps training facility and as a manufacturing site for parts of the B-17 bomber.
When it reopened, purses got bigger – attracting more fans, better-known horses and top-notch jockeys, one of whom was Bill Shoemaker who collected more than his share of the stakes. A new crop of celebs came onto the scene, including Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickenson. But at its half-century birthday, a renovation was in need. And in 1990 the grandstand was demolished and replaced with the one standing today.
Fast forward to 2000 and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s desire to attract a younger audience, in addition to its established multi-decades racing crowd. Positioning Del Mar as a fashion destination, opening day became synonymous with hat-loving women, as well as men, making one of the largest draws for the energetic crowd the famous hat contest.
From Bing Crosby and Hollywood to World War II and opening day’s contemporary hat contest, continuity remains at the Del Mar racetrack. Always played before each days’ first and last race, a tune recorded long ago by Bing Crosby, “Where the turf meets the surf,” remains the theme of the racing track located seaside in the village of Del Mar.