Why you should care
Because the scent of horses and salt water is a known aphrodisiac.
For decades, the tiny SoCal coastal town of Del Mar was the summer hangout for a cadre of aging Hollywood stars obsessed with horse racing. Crooner Bing Crosby founded the Del Mar racetrack in 1937, along with pals Gary Cooper and Pat O’Brien. In the ’70s, Desi Arnaz owned a home on the beach, a few blocks down from Jimmy Durante and Burt Bacharach and his wife, Angie Dickinson. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was a regular at the track, often accompanied by chummy assistant Clyde Tolson.
Del Mar is a 90-minute drive or train ride from Los Angeles, making it the perfect get-the-fuck-out-of-LA option. And Del Mar has always been different from other tracks. Most horse tracks make you feel like you should catch up on that tetanus shot, like, soon. Many people fondly recall a racetrack as the first place they saw someone urinate in public.
But Del Mar is “where the turf meets the surf.” The track is across the road from a sandy white beach, with lakes, swaying palm trees and fountains in the infield. The grandstand has ocean views. During the races, families can picnic in the infield, where the kids can run wild and free and learn the intricacies of betting on speed horses in turf races.
Bing and the boys may be dead and buried, but race day still has that tinge of Hollywood charm.
These days the annual summer meeting has lost some of its Hollywood luster, although you still might spot a stray Kardashian hanging around the paddock. Instead of the director of the FBI, you are now more likely to run into coked-up hedge fund directors and fading porn stars. Recent coverage noted appearances by one of the guys from the Bachelorette as well as “Mario Lopez and his pregnant girlfriend, Courtney Mazza.”
On most days there is plenty of room to roam in the grandstand, which the state of California rebuilt in the ’90s, creating one of the largest facilities in the country. It wasn’t great timing. Since then attendance at tracks has plummeted, in part due to the growth of off-track betting. At the same time, an alarmingly high number of horse deaths have many fans rethinking the nobility of the so-called Sport of Kings. A few years ago the pooh-bahs of Del Mar changed their marketing strategy, de-emphasizing horses and that icky betting to focus on the social scene, concerts and beer parties. The changes have worked, to a degree, and Del Mar is bucking the industry trends. The new marketing pitch is “Cool as Ever.” “It is about pretty people, young people, having fun, cheering,” says Mac McBride, the track’s media director. “It’s not the standard racetrack crowd.”
Del Mar has always had a special vibe, which has nothing to do with betting the pick 6. During race season, which starts in mid-July and runs through the end of Labor Day weekend, the races take over the little town. The season has the feel of a reunion, as owners, jockeys, trainers and assorted hangers-on hunker down for several weeks, planning their summers around the track schedule.
Hanging in Del Mar is a lifestyle, a celebration that life is good, the sun is out and maybe you’ll hit an exacta to pay the rent. You can get up early to watch the workouts, as the smell of horse poop mingles with the cool ocean air. Maybe spend the morning on the beach, studying the Daily Racing Form, before heading to an open-air restaurant for lunch, leaving plenty of time to catch the first race at 2 p.m.
Bing and the boys may be dead and buried, but race day still has that tinge of Hollywood charm. Every race day starts with a recording of Bing singing his ode to Del Mar, “Where the Turf Meets the Surf.” Shorts and tank tops are the preferred style, but many still see a day at the races as an excuse to dress up and make believe they were invited to the Hamptons for a weekend. Girls get to wear hats and their skimpy summer dresses, the hot numbers they usually save for weddings and their parents’ birthday parties. Guys respond by wearing jackets in the summer heat, which seems remarkably stupid, except they can’t get into the Turf Club, the swanky part of the grandstand, unless they wear a jacket.
The race card usually ends close to sunset. As the early evening clouds start to roll in and the bugle sounds for the last race, there is still time for a swim in the Pacific. And maybe a few dolphins will meander by as you splash in the waves, because what’s a day at the track without a few dolphins?