Column: The thoroughbreds are off and running at Del Mar

Steffi Poce from Park City, Utah, drove to Del Mar because her hat was too big to fit on a plane.
Steffi Poce from Park City, Utah, drove to Del Mar because her hat was too big to fit on a plane. Poce was the Grand Prize winner of the Opening Day Hats Contest. She competed in the Best Racing Theme category.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Del Mar opening day joins Comic-Con and Pride parade in a one-week trifecta of San Diego events


Opening day at Del Mar sold out days before fans arrived Friday, July 22 in their fashionable hats and heard country singer Steven Cade sing Bing Crosby’s track anthem, “Where the Turf Meets the Surf.”

The fast sellout was due, in part, to a cap on opening day attendance at just below 22,000 spectators.

In past seasons, about 35,000, and as many as 47,000 racing enthusiasts crowded in for opening day.

The cap wasn’t a pandemic crowd-control mandate, but more a way to make the setting more comfortable, explains Joe Harper, longtime CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

In past years, spectators could hardly walk around on opening day, he says. With fewer attendees, people don’t get shut out at the betting windows before getting their bets down.

For Del Mar fans, yesterday was a welcome return to opening day as usual. Aside from crowd size, little appears to have changed.

South African announcer Trevor Denman, back to work after being laid up with a back injury, was there to call the races in his distinctive cadence. Longtime chef Barry Schneider commanded the kitchen cooks, and Turf Club maître d’ Jimmy O’Hara was deftly directing well-dressed spectators to their trackside tables.

Actress Bo Derek had returned from travel in time to join other board members in the director’s box, Harper reports. For the most part, though, the influx of Hollywood personalities — Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, George Raft, Burt Bacharach, Angie Dickinson, and others — who became familiar faces at the Del Mar track, are revered memories of the past.

Some political VIPs were on hand. California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon presented the trophy in the third race, and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria was invited to hand it to the winner of the fifth race.

Former ESPN personality Kenny Mayne was there to congratulate the triumphant eighth race winner, and former S.D. Charger Antonio Gates and L.A. Charger Keenan Allen were invited to present race honors as well.

As always, glamorous, humorous and Del Mar-themed hats were over the top.

Steffi Poce drove from Park City, Utah, because her hat was too big to take on a plane. It was a full racetrack with miniature spectators, tables, landscaping and a horse in the center riding a jockey. The underside was wallpapered with bills altered to say, “In Horse We Trust” and “U.S. of Del Mar.”

Katiria Bembi, of Los Angeles, created a hat piled high with clouds and studded with crows modeled after Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Her chapeau motto: “The sky’s the limit.”

Yesterday marked the 12th opening day for Belinda Berry, but this time she had to drive from Tennessee, where she recently moved. She created
an elegant floral hat of lilies that she called, “Gilding the Tiger Lily.” Her matching mint-green calf-length dress flared out, thanks to a hula hoop hidden in the hem.

Thomas Barrett and Belinda Berry.
(Diane Bell/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As the thousands of festive fans filed through gates yesterday, few had any idea of the flurry of work that prepped the track during the 17 days since the San Diego County Fair fireworks finale July 4.

A brigade of nearly 1,000 workers and supervisors was unleased on the carnival grounds and grandstands to transform them back into a horseracing Garden of Eden.

Fifty-five thousand plants, flowers and bushes were added to the landscape.

Tons of “El Segundo sand” were put back in place to re-form the track. The precious sand (actually dirt from LAX airport property prized by racetracks for its rich texture) had been scooped up from the track surface to protect it from the ravages of fair booths and foot traffic. It was stored in discreet mounds elsewhere on the property during the fair.

The compacted footprint of the mammoth fair concert stands had to be massaged by dirt track specialists. Hundreds of TVs were installed, along with pari-mutuel betting machines and ATMs.

Nine days after the fireworks — at midnight on July 12 — the stables opened (with living quarters upstairs), and 1,800 thoroughbreds began arriving and training.

Thanks to an arrangement with a mushroom farm in Escondido, about 40 tons of horse manure began being trucked out each day — so those stuffed mushrooms you buy at your favorite restaurant or grocery store may have a Del Mar connection.

A village of about 50 trailers arrived, and an army of horse groomers, walkers and trainers populated the backstretch. About 100 of them took up residence on site.

They have their own kitchen that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a rec room with movies and games for post-race R&R.

Track management’s comfort level with capping attendance was fueled by the huge increase of off-track betting that grew out of sports lovers being marooned at home in the early days of the pandemic. Professional team sports abruptly halted, but horses don’t get COVID-19.

Del Mar’s pari-mutuel handle jumped from an average of $12 million in betting a day in 2019 to about $18 million in 2020 when the stands were empty — a 50 percent increase, says track spokesman C.P. “Mac” McBride.

So the Del Mar races are flourishing despite the pandemic and, in large part, because of it.

Last season when opening day attendance was capped at 15,000, betting still rose, breaching $22 million. “People tuned in, maybe for the first time,” McBride theorizes. “They saw something they liked, and they’re coming back.”

The results, he says, is that Del Mar evolved from the red-headed stepchild of other prominent California racetracks to a leader.

This season, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is offering purses that average $800,000 a day — the richest prizes of any track in the state.

And that, in turn, attracts top thoroughbred talent — horses, jockeys and trainers.

Since Del Mar’s leading jockey, Flavien Prat, moved east to try his luck at the rich East Coast racetracks, a number of hot-shot jockeys are primed to fill his riding boots. Expect to hear the names of Juan Hernandez, Florent Geroux, Ramon Vazquez and Johnny Velasquez.

The track is abuzz, too, about a phenomenal young racehorse named Flightline that has won each of his first four races — by a lot. In racing circles, he is considered the horse to beat.

Flightline is owned by Kosta Hronis, a member of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board of directors, and his brother, Pete, and schooled by highly respected Southern California trainer John Sadler.

In 2018, the Hronis brothers earned the coveted national “outstanding owner” Eclipse Award after their horses led the country with $7.3 million in earnings.

The phenomenal equine athlete is slated to compete in Del Mar’s $1 million Pacific Classic on Sept. 3. If Flightline wins, he automatically becomes eligible for the Breeder’s Cup Classic, which carries a $6 million purse.

While TVG broadcasts and off-track betting may bring in the money — the lifeblood of horseracing — there is no substitute for the vibrancy and excitement of being at the track to witness the sports spectacle firsthand.

“It’s pretty. It’s majestic. It’s competitive. If you see it in person, it touches your heart — 1,200-pound athletes ridden by 100-pound jockeys wearing colorful silks,” says McBride, the track spokesman. “If we can get people to the racetrack, we can make them fans.”

That is what opening day is all about.