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Nothing quite like opening day at Del Mar

Everything's a little over the top, including another record crowd, where the surf meets the turf. Aside from the fashion shows, there is even some horse racing.

July 18, 2012|Chris Erskine
  • Horse racing isn't the only spectacle worth seeing on opening day at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Horse racing isn't the only spectacle worth seeing on opening day… (Benoit Photo )

Part movie premiere, part prom, dreamy Del Mar opened its eight-week summer meeting Wednesday. Think of it as Legoland for adults.

The wind was blowing out, and so were the spectators. Blown out. Sprawled out. Spilling out. This is horse racing, San Diego style. At Del Mar, even the horses have tan lines.

"There's horses here?!" one woman hiccuped to a friend in a paddock area that resembled a bachelor party.

And let me say this, having experienced both: The opening-day crowd at Del Mar makes the Kentucky Derby look like a Marine Corps mud run.

Del Mar is down here along the water, you know, "where the surf meets the turf," they like to say. And the gin meets the chin.

There's a lot of meeting going on down here, all right. Imagine if Beverly Hills had a hunting season. Gentlemen of a certain age and their nice young "nieces."

As seems horse racing's lot lately, the day was also marked by the funereal and bizarre. In the fifth race, Playful Council fractured his left front leg and had to be put down later. In the seventh, popular jockey Chantal Sutherland flew off her horse just out of the gate, leaving Sir Hamilton to finish riderless. Sutherland was cleared to ride later in the day.

If they were even noticed, such incidents didn't dampen a SoCal tradition that dates to 1937, when owner Bing Crosby personally welcomed patrons to opening day.

These days, Del Mar is more about tats and tans. But it still pours on the pageantry, comic though it can be. To give you an idea, a funny hat contestant wore a full-sized bicycle on his head and didn't even place in the money.

"Every time I turned around, I wiped out a big hat," said Daniel Powell, who was using his bike hat to promote cycling to the track.

"He makes the impossible possible," explained his assistant, Jessica Kropf.

Speaking of which, Mark Verge was here, another guy trying to lift impossible objects over his head. The new CEO of Santa Anita glad-handed his way through the members-only Turf Club, chatting up politicians and billionaires.

Down in the winner's circle, he stopped to greet actor John Ortiz, accidentally clipped the track bugler, paused to apologize, then handed out Turf Club wristbands to three young Texans at their first-ever horse race.

"Stand up," Verge told patrons sitting around him. "It's the first race on opening day, stand up!"

Believe it or not, the day saw several examples of overindulgence. Guess it only takes a few.

Down in the sticky seats, where the fabric of choice is the beer cup, the crowd was cooked and teetering by the third race. Word had it that one woman passed out over a toilet.

"At first, they thought she was dead," one witness said.

Today, she wishes she were.

Mostly, the atmosphere was lively but genial — "four women to every guy," or so goes an unofficial census from a couple of deep thinkers admiring hats and high heels.

"You just buy a regular hat, and then you go to Michael's and you fix it up," said Hunter Daley, as she pranced nearby in her frilly pink bonnet.

Daley said she was using her stripper name for the day. No worries, she also moonlights as a nurse.

"I've got $70,000 in student loans," she explained. "Strip clubs don't have recessions."

Some things can't be bought. Love is not one of them.

But Shawn and Robin Rogers were celebrating something real, something even bigger than opening day.

"I met my husband here five years ago today," said Robin, her hat full of fresh roses from her spouse's landscaping business. "I tell my friends, 'Look, it really can happen!'"

So, there's Del Mar — one day down, 36 to go.

Wednesday set an opening-day attendance record (47,339), the eighth record in a row.

On the business side of things, Midnight Crooner won the sixth race, the first of two features, paying $10.20. My Best Brother won the featured ninth, and paid $14.

Aug. 26 is expected to be the session's other big day, when Acclamation returns to the $1-million Pacific Classic, a Grade I race he won last year. Acclamation, who also will be running Saturday, will go up against Richard's Kid, back from a disappointing stint in Dubai and running well again for trainer Bob Baffert.

Game On Dude, ridden by Sutherland, will help fill out what is expected to be a full Pacific Classic field.

Until then, the surf meets the turf Wednesday through Sunday, with post times at 2 p.m., except on "4 o'clock Fridays."

Be sure to use your stripper name.

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