March 30, 2023

Good start eases minds at Del Mar

Hronis Racing's Jasikan and jockey Flavien Prat, center, en route to a narrow victory in the $100,000 Runhappy Oceanside Stakes on opening day, Wednesday, July 17, 2019, of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club's 80th summer racing season. ©Benoit Photo

It’s odd to type “normalcy” to describe an opening day at Del Mar.

There is very little “normal” about the first day of the summer season at the seaside racetrack.

Practically every track has a clash of the flashy and proper with the debaucherous and vulgar, but opening day at Del Mar takes that to another level.

With the context of the crisis Southern California racing has undergone in 2019, however, Wednesday’s racing day was a welcome deep breath.

Outside of a few scratches because horses got loose before races, the card was conducted without serious incident and was safe. It’s no guarantee there won’t be incidents in the future, but the dark cloud that has hovered over racing at Santa Anita, where a rash of horse breakdowns and fatalities spun the region into crisis, burned off like the marine layer at Del Mar on Wednesday–not entirely, but enough to give some glimpses of sun and blue sky.

The relief was palpable, and tension was eased, even before racing commenced. During training hours local television stations set up shop to talk about the racing and fashion of the day, not to focus the camera on the racetrack just in case something happened. A safe meet at Los Alamitos in between the Santa Anita and Del Mar meets helped, and a change in scenery even farther south contributed even more. Every year Del Mar’s summer dates are anticipated–the pageantry, the beach, the weather and the betting product have all been aspects to look forward to–but those comforts take on greater meaning in 2019.

Even trainer John Sadler and owner Kosta Hronis picked up right where they left off, after a standout 2018 summer Del Mar season, with a nose victory from Jasikan in the first stakes of the 2019 season, the Oceanside.

“It’s nice … to get a fresh start down here, and hopefully they can get some things done up at Santa Anita while we’re gone,” Sadler said. “Hopefully we can get some brighter days ahead for California horse racing.”

Although issues remain, it didn’t abate the party. If the annual Florida-Georgia football game is the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” the first day of Del Mar isn’t far off.

The dress code for most is clear. For women, the brighter the dress the better. Tight and skimpy isn’t a requirement, but is the prevalent style. For men, unless you are wearing a necktie, the top button of a collared shirt must not be fastened at the risk of expulsion. Two buttons down is customary, and three is encouraged for those sporting formidable chest hair. The combination of a T-shirt, sport jacket, pastel shorts and boat shoes with no socks is also perfectly acceptable, as are painfully bright look-at-me patterned suits.

Both sexes featured ample dressed-to-the-nines patrons, who could move seamlessly from the track to the nightclub after racing, but only one side regularly and unabashedly gawked at the other. Attractive women working their way through the breezeways were met with pained expressions, as if the onlooker was out of breath or experiencing a Fred Sanford-esque coronary. Others just let it flow vocally.

“That’s proof God exists,” one young son of San Diego loudly uttered in his failed attempt to whisper toward his comrades as a line of women ambled by.

The everyday racetrackers were there, too, but not in abundance. Many regulars stay away until the unofficial opening day 24 hours later, when the bothersome riff raff has vacated the grounds to let them gamble in relative peace. Although there are other signs, the dead giveaway for regular horseplayers of a certain age is their shoes. Comfort is king, so a fresh pair of New Balance or Asics are preferable. Nobody wants to make a big score with achy feet.

The regulars looked upon the rompers, the bowtied and the kilted with curiosity, then got back to the matter at hand–studying the horses–while the once-a-year invaders cared less about the racing.

The grandstand apron was reminiscent of a block party, or a neighborhood barbeque, in sight, sound and smell–folding chairs everywhere, portable speakers, and a spreads of food–as fans absorbed an almost cliche, perfect Del Mar day.

Mid-70s with a cool breeze is inherently San Diego, and inherently Del Mar, but so is the buzz of opening day. There’s something special about the hum of building of excitement pre-race, which leads to an outburst as the horses hit the stretch run. Other big racing days can have a similar environment, but there’s something unique about a Del Mar opener.

Buzzed onlookers certainly can lead to buzz, so that can’t be discounted, but the root of the excitement is more likely the freshness of racing for those who haven’t experienced the thrill before. An extra layer, however, came from those who know and love the game, hoping for a fresh start, a return to normalcy and to everything that makes it great–photo finishes, breathtaking performances and cashing tickets.

Even as the crowd thinned and got sloppier and slurried–with wardrobe malfunctions aplenty, a spattering of regurgitation and the frat-house smell of drying alcohol–the buzz remained. The parade of chalk (average win price Wednesday was $7.14) kept the masses happy, but with every passing race that nagging worry–that dark cloud–dissipated a bit. Photos were taken (racetrack backdrops are great for the ‘gram), ponies were pet, margaritas were swigged and money was pushed through the windows with glee. Peril could very well be right around the corner, as the protestors promised just outside the gates, but six months of bated breath was enough. It was time to exhale and enjoy racing again.