Del Mar Diaries: Opening Day

The Life

I’ve wanted to go to Del Mar’s Opening Day for about as long as I can remember. Within horse racing circles, the event is legendary: it combines an excellent day of equine competition with an all-day party that has become the hub of San Diego’s summer social scene, and this year I was determined to be there to take in the whole experience.

When I arrived at the track at about 11 a.m. for Opening Day, gates had just opened up and the crowd was already flowing in to Del Mar’s historic facility.

And they were in for a treat: Del Mar is not only an incredibly beautiful racetrack (Bing Crosby even wrote a song about it called “Where the Turf Meets the Surf”) but Opening Day was also picture-perfect with clear skies and an ocean breeze. People seemed thrilled to be there, and were posing for photos in front of the many different landmarks scattered throughout the premises. I firmly believe that Del Mar was the selfie capitol of America on Thursday afternoon. 

Not that I’m in a judgment place when it comes to selfies; when I arrived in the press box to deposit my computer I ran into my dear friend, the fabulous Molly Jo Rosen. After much hugging, the next step was obvious:

After chatting with Molly and setting up shop in the press box, I set out to explore the Opening Day scene at Del Mar. Specifically; I wanted to check out the hat contest, which was celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. I was not disappointed: I saw some wild and wonderful hats that people clearly put a lot of time and effort into making; some were good, some were bad, and some were downright show-stopping. This woman has entered the hat contest every year of its existence, and her hat chronicled each of her attempts. It was hat-ception!

I was obsessed with this guy. To celebrate Del Mar’s “where the turf meets the surf” theme, he’d created an amazing chapeau that incorporated both the horse racing and beach scene of Southern California. He had a whole surfboard on his head, plus a plush pony wearing jockey’s silks… and a hat. It was awesome.

A closeup of the horse:

Love it!

This guy gets full points for details; his hat encapsulated everything Del Mar, from the Amtrak train that takes fans to the track to the hot air balloons that rise every evening into the setting sun. There were even horses and NTRA flags floating over the recreated Grandstand. It was seriously impressive, and a very popular guy for photos!

And that was just a taste of the hat action from the afternoon. I couldn’t stop myself from taking a ton of photos of headgear that ran the gamut of wacky to sophisticated, and I’ve selected a sample below for you to enjoy:

But while the hats alone were worth the trip to Del Mar, we were all at the track for a reason: for the horse races! The first contest of the day went off at 2 p.m., and as the horses paraded in the paddock before the very first race I was once again struck by the splendor of Del Mar.

As post time for the first race drew nearer, I made my way to the Winner’s Circle to get ready to capture the drama of the contest. While I was there, I spied the prize awarded to the winner of each race at Del Mar: a bouquet of beautiful yellow roses and a jumbo bottle of Maker’s Mark.

I really, really need to win a race at Del Mar, y’all.

As the horses approached the starting gate, the crowd was thick on the apron as people strained to get a good view and take photos of the equine and human athletes. There was a buzz of anticipation in the air, and I was caught up in the excitement as the race grew ever closer.

And, finally, they were off! The crowd roared its approval as the horses surged out of the starting gate to kick off Del Mar’s 77th year of horse racing.

After a mile’s run, it was Hawk’s Eyes who took the opener, and as he crossed under the wire jockey Tiago Pereira stood up in the saddle to celebrate his victory.

After that, the day was a blur of excitement as people enjoyed a fantastic afternoon filled with betting, socializing, cocktails and camaraderie. Over 42,000 fans showed up to Del Mar to toast Opening Day, and it was so much fun to see that many people out to celebrate a great day of racing in such amazing style.

There were also plenty of stars around; I spotted celebrity chef Bobby Flay taking in the Del Mar festivities, and there were rumors that football star Johnny Manziel was in attendance as well.

The feature race of the afternoon was the Oceanside Stakes, which took place on Del Mar’s newly widened and renovated turf course. The grass is so beautiful that it looks like a putting green, and I think if there hadn’t been 12 very expensive horses about to run I could have happily set up a towel and done some sunbathing on it – it’s that exquisite.

Twelve horses were lined up for the Oceanside Stakes, and as they left the starting gate to begin their one mile journey, the crowd roared in appreciation.

As the field turned for home and the battle to the finish line began, I had my camera fixed on the #1 horse, Argyle Cut. He had a solid lead and looked like he couldn’t be caught. Silly me: I should have known jockey Mike Smith would sneak up on the outside and steal the race like a bandit. That’s him on the outside #9 horse Enterprising (the one that I do not have my camera focused on. Get it together, Penelope!)

But despite my mistake, I was still very happy to see Enterprising win. His trainer, Tom Proctor, is a terrific guy who I’ve known since my days working at Tampa Bay Downs; and I always love to see Mike Smith win. He’s got the best smile in all of horse racing, and he seems to thoroughly enjoy and be grateful for every victory that he earns.

As the sun set on my very first Opening Day at Del Mar, I reflected on just how lucky we as fans are to have a place like this to enjoy such a fantastic day of horse racing, socializing and excitement. The good news is that I have a remarkable souvenir from the day:

Yep. Remember, people: sunblock is your friend!

Thanks for stopping by, and please leave your thoughts on Del Mar’s Opening Day festivities in the comments below, and i’ll be back soon with lots more action from where the turf meets the surf!

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