DEL MAR — On a day that brought out the largest opening-day crowd in Del Mar history, a pair of imports from Ireland and France, Lightning Hit and Obrigado, raced to come-from-behind victories under jockey Alex Solis in divisions of the one-mile Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf.
"What can be better?" said Tom Lenner, a Manhattan Beach resident who owns Lightning Hit and watched nervously as Solis rallied the winner from last place in the field of seven to edge One Union by a head, with Get Funky another nose back in a stirring three-way stretch duel during Wednesday's first division.
In the second division, Obrigado, at odds of 6-1, defeated the 4-5 favorite, Porto Santo, by a head, with Solis again urging his horse during a furious sprint through the stretch with perfect timing.
"It's always amazing opening day at Del Mar," Solis said. "We look forward to this day, and it seems as if you perform a little extra."
The crowd of 42,005 was the second largest since the track opened in 1937, surpassed only by the 44,181 in 1996 when Cigar ran in the Pacific Classic. The handle of more than $15 million also was an opening-day record.
Both stakes winners wore blinkers for the first time, and Solis said that equipment change made a big difference in getting the horses to maintain focus from start to finish.
Trained by Ronald McAnally, Lightning Hit thrives on coming from way off the pace. The Irish-bred son of Orpen had finished second in his last three races, missing by a head in his last start June 29 at Hollywood Park. This time, he benefited from fast early fractions as The Five J's and One Union pressured each other for the lead.
"I knew there would be some decent pace in the race, but I got luckier than that," Solis said. "The pace was really fast. And that worked to my advantage. My horse is a hard trier, and he put out today. And he feels like the kind of horse who will like to run even farther."
Meanwhile, Lenner was proudly holding the winning cup given to the owner. It was his second stakes victory after getting into the business six years ago. He has 17 horses in training.
"I love coming down here," he said. "It's a vacation."
Obrigado, a French-bred son of Enrique trained by Neil Drysdale, had finished third and fifth in two turf races at Hollywood Park. "In his races, he was lagging back," Drysdale said. "The blinkers helped."
Both Obrigado and Porto Santo were impeded by New Joysey Jeff, the third-place finisher who ducked out at the top of the stretch, similar to what happened in his last race when he unseated jockey Jose Valdivia at Hollywood Park on June 25. Porto Santo, a French import making his American debut, encountered lots of trouble.
"Twice I had to stop with this horse," jockey Victor Espinoza said. "And I mean stop. Not just take a hold of him. He was much the best. If I have a clean trip, we're the winner."
Solis, who won three races on the day, wasn't scheduled to ride Obrigado, picking up the mount only after jockey Pat Valenzuela was excused from his seven riding commitments after complaining of back pain, according to his agent, Tom Kust.
The record crowd put a smile on the face of Joe Harper, Del Mar's president and general manager.
"Opening day has taken on a life of its own," he said. "It's gone way beyond the traditional race track crowd. These are folks who come out here and have a good time."