Your Guide to Summer at Del Mar, Where the Turf Meets the Surf

Events / Travel

Remember your high school crush? Whatever shortcomings he or she had, you were willing to look past them, because, man, they were beautiful! When it comes to horse tracks, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is a knockout, whose scant pockmarks wash away in the Southern California surf.

The Keeneland of the west, Del Mar, situated directly across the street from the Pacific Ocean about 20 miles north of San Diego proper, was founded in 1937 by the iconic entertainer Bing Crosby, whose “Where the Turf Meets the Surf” became the track’s signature tune after World War II. In some ways, Del Mar has held fast to its buttoned-down, Old Hollywood roots. In the track’s tonier reaches, namely its Turf Club, attempts to waltz in without a blazer and slacks will get the offender collared quicker than a tweaker dealing crystal to a cop. Yet any track that stages a Friday night concert series featuring the likes of Ice Cube, Switchfoot, and Matisyahu can hardly be considered stuffy. And that’s to say nothing of its summer meet’s gloriously besotted opening day, which makes the Kentucky Derby look like a PTA social.

Hats from Del Mar's contest.
Hats from Del Mar's contest. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Main At-track-tions: July 18 marks opening day of Del Mar’s summer meet, when upwards of 40,000 nattily dressed people crammed into a track that feels packed to the rafters long before that. Midway through the 10-race card, as a slew of wobbly attendees slurped down spendy Del Margaritas (anchored by a double-shot of Don Julio) served in paper cups with a three-dimensional diamond design, one relatively sober gentleman accurately observed, “There are some hurt-ass people out here right now.” And he wasn’t talking about shin splints.

As with special occasions at many tracks, there’s a contest to determine which patron has donned the most elaborate hat on opening day at Del Mar.

But for the horseplayer who prefers a bit more elbow room, there’s nary a track in America with a more consistently stellar offering of stakes races spread throughout its schedule, headlined by the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic in late August, which pits elite horses age 3 and up against one another over 1 1/4 miles on dirt. For 2-year-olds, the meet-closing Del Mar Futurity provides fans a preview of the following year’s Derby hopefuls, while the track’s refurbished turf course plays host to such top-flight races as the Aug. 18 Del Mar Oaks, a 1-1/8 mile showdown featuring some of the nation’s best fillies. And owing to the closure of Hollywood Park, Del Mar picked up a 15-day fall meeting run each November. That meet’s final weekend will feature a pair of Grade 1 contests: the 1-1/8 mile Hollywood Derby for the boys, and the mile-long Matriarch for female horses.

No track supplements the equine action as deftly as Del Mar, as evidenced by the caliber of its Friday night concert series. Built into the price of general admission is a post-race show featuring the likes of The Psychadelic Furs, Steel Pulse, and Iration. Furthemore, Ice Cube, Slightly Stoopid, and Ziggy Marley have been booked for weekend gigs that are augmented by grilling contests and chili cook-offs. For patrons who’d rather soar with the eagles than hoot with the owls, July 28 is Donuts Day, hosted by Del Mar’s sublime South African announcer Trevor Denman, during which fans can nosh on donuts, coffee, and juice while watching the horses work out. Similarly, every Saturday early birds can wolf down a full breakfast in the Clubhouse Terrace while trainers exercise their charges on the oval below.

Eating, Drinking and Sleeping: With prime rib that cuts like butter, masterful Manhattans and trophy tennis wives getting tipsy in the piano bar, Red Tracton’s is the sort of dark, classy, horse-centric steakhouse any track worth its salt ought to have within spitting distance. But the most distinctly Del Marian dining and drinking experience has got to be fish tacos paired with multiple microbrews at the Brigantine. Perched on a cliff that overlooks the track, the Brig feels like the precise synergy of surf and turf that Bing Crosby envisioned when he penned Del Mar’s theme so many years ago. But we’re not sure how many visits it takes to prevent even the most hardened regulars from being jolted by chugging passenger trains that whiz past the multi-tiered patio every 15 minutes or so. Chalk it up to local character, and keep your pint moored to the table.

For bettors looking to study their Forms well before noon, the Hide Away Cafe, an eight-table hole-in-the-wall on the outskirts of downtown Solana Beach, lives up to its name, offering Hawaiian French Toast in lieu of sourdough. Also off the beaten path is Tony’s Jacal, a family-operated restaurant in Solana Beach’s Little Mexico district with decor that’s hardly been altered since its World War II-era inception. Boasting a verdant patio, mean margaritas and an encaged flock of parakeets chirping near the entrance, Tony’s lounge is homage to Latinos’ rich contribution to the sport of horse racing, with hand-framed winner’s circle snapshots filling the walls and extraordinarily authentic chow filling stomachs.

If the Friday night concerts at the track leave you pining for more music, just up Cedros Avenue in Solana Beach is Belly Up, an eclectic venue with a summer schedule featuring national acts like Toad the Wet Sprockets, Shooter Jennings, and Tribal Theory, among many others. When it’s finally time to hit the sheets, the Hilton and Winners Circle Resort (both across the street from the track, with the latter connected to Red Tracton’s) can’t be beat for convenience, while the tony L’Auberge Del Mar doubles as an after-hours meet market for the affluent and gorgeous.

Riders Up: Del Mar has long been a quick getaway of sorts for Hollywood types who are fond of horse racing, which explains why the likes of Burt Bacharach and Jenny Craig own horses here. The horsemen ranks are no less luminescent, with standouts like Kent Desormeaux, Victor Espinoza, Corey Nakatani, Mike Smith, Gary Stevens, Bob Baffert, Neil Drysdale, Jerry Hollendorfer, and Doug O’Neill either riding or saddling horses at the surfside race place. But horse racing is a sport where regional stalwarts hold their own, which is why the likes of John Sadler and Peter Miller are apt to contend for Del Mar’s training title, while perennial riding leaders Rafael Bejarano and Martin Garcia, as well as Drayden Van Dyke and Flavien Prat, will look to make a splash where the beach meets the backstretch.

Tip Sheet: Bold type, all caps: Don’t drink and drive after a day at Del Mar is a warning that should be heeded hundredfold on opening day, when DUI patrols are justifiably merciless. Unfortunately, the San Diego area boasts some of the most exorbitantly priced taxicabs in the free world. Thank goodness, then, for the Coaster, a commuter train that whips up and down the coast, connecting inner-city San Diegans and North County beach bros alike with the track. The Solana Beach station is nearest to Del Mar, with double-decker buses shuttling fans to and from the turnstiles. Those British-style coaches can get fairly full on busy days, however, making the nearby Rail Trail a very viable option for folks sober enough to hoof it a mile or so.

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