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OPENING DAY AT DEL MAR | DIANE PUCIN

New Beginnings

Horse racing: There's much more to see than the ponies as Del Mar opens its gates for the annual summer meeting at the seaside track.

July 23, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

DEL MAR — Frank Herman is 82 years old. He is wearing a jacket red as the color of a racing Ferrari and on top of his head is a two-foot-high hat. On the hat there is a plastic horse surrounded by a plastic fence and there are fake dollar bills pasted all around the brim.

Herman lives in Carlsbad and he was one of the first entrants for the hat contest Thursday at Del Mar Race Course. Herman's hearing isn't the best and after he filled out his hat contest entry form, Herman carefully put his hat in a paper shopping bag and walked slowly toward the grandstand.

It is opening day at Del Mar, time for racing at the prettiest, sunniest, sweetest horse racing venue in the country. Herman is alone and he disappears into the gathering crowd. He has come not to bet, but just to be outside and with people. Sometimes he is lonely, Herman says, but not on this day. "I like to get dressed up and go out," Herman says. "You've got to look nice today you know."

Yes, indeed you do.

There is no better fashion show than opening day at Del Mar. Besides the hat contest you could easily have a shortest-skirt contest, a highest pair of heels contest, the most-florescent-colored suit jacket contest, the best tan--male and female division--and the most hair plugs, male division only.

At 11:30 a.m. when the gates open, there is a mad dash. Those who have lined up for three hours are the true horse racing fans. They carry lawn chairs and binoculars, coolers filled with sandwiches and soft drinks. They don't want to stop and talk because they are hurrying for their favorite spot. It has been checked out carefully, maybe on the infield lawn so green it is shouting at you to lay out a blanket and have a picnic. Or maybe on the apron below the grandstand seats, where you can feel the breath of the horses as they pound by, where you could get a clump of dirt in your iced tea, a snort of sweat in your beer.

"Can't talk now," the first man in says. "Gotta get to my spot."

Close your eyes and you can smell your way to the Pacific Ocean.

Long ago, the horses used to be led to the sea to swim in the healing salt water, to frolic in the waves as if they were children. Now it is the people who come from the beach, sun tanning in the morning, putting down a $5 bet in the afternoon. Long ago, the summer racing season at Del Mar belonged to all the Hollywood stars--Bing Crosby, Pat O'Brien, Jimmy Durante, Betty Grable. Thursday Tim Conway was in attendance and that's the top of the marquee as far as anyone can tell.

"Does it get better than this?" Tom Jelasik asks. Jelasik has arrived with his two children and his wife. The two boys are carrying small backpacks filled with floating toys and they smell of suntan lotion. Jelasik and his family have come from Fresno. It is a vacation and Jelasik, the racetrack lover, bribes his family with the promise of a neat hotel stay, beach fun and a trip to Legoland nearby. It works.

"There is no better place in the world than right here right now," Jelasik says as he purchases his Daily Racing Form. "I just love this place."

More fun, almost, than watching the horses is watching the people who enter through the Clubhouse Gate. It is worth the price of admission--and much, much more--to stand and observe.

What stories you can imagine as you watch these people. The man in the Elvis Presley swept-back hairstyle, hair all white instead of jet black and the woman on his arm, wearing a canary-yellow dress that might be maybe a size too small. She uses a cane to walk with and also to point with. She points with the cane and the man white-haired on her arm follows. She is trailed by another man, a younger version of herself. He smokes a cigar and tries to look as if he isn't trailing after his wealthy mother. He is trying not to look like an obedient 2-year-old. But it doesn't work. That's what he looks like.

A woman in a silver skirt, if you can call a piece of material no more than 12 inches in length a skirt, totters on heels practically 12 inches high. She waits for a friend, whose dress is shorter than the skirt, whose heels might be 18 inches high. Together these two, tanned 40-somethings wobble off, drinks in hand. To what? See and be seen.

You must push your way through all these finely clothed celebrants to get to the paddock. It is quieter there. The fancy-schmancy people aren't around. Maybe, instinctively, they know better. For all the gold Rolexes, all the designer clothes, fade when you see the shiny coats, the chocolate brown eyes, the chestnuts, the silvers, the glorious parade of horses.

Outside the gates, as the opening day crowd had begun arriving, a group of protesters marched. They were from the San Diego Animal Advocates group and they say that horses shouldn't be raced until the age of 3. A plane flew overhead trailing a banner that read: "How many horses have to die for your gambling pleasure?"

The horses don't notice this, of course. The horses come to run, whatever their age. If a jockey sits on its back, the horse will run.

And all these people, the ones in shorts and flip-flops who rush in early to get a place at the rail; the man dressed in a designer suit holding the hand of a little boy who is maybe 8 years old and wearing a suit just like his dad; the women dipped in gold jewelry and sparkling in the sun; they don't notice either.

Not on this day. Not when there is champagne to sip, sushi to eat and the sun to tan them even deeper.

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com

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