Thursday, July 19, 2012
It's the 75th Anniversary of the Del Mar horse racing season. The track has broken attendance records seven years straight. And this year features a new race starter who has worked his way up from the bottom.
You can sense the excitement in the air even before the first horse race. People come from near and far to see and be seen. Nearly 47,000 showed up on opening day last year setting a new attendance record. There's also a new man behind the starter's gate. "I'm John Lopez and I'm the official starter here now."
Lopez, 54, has seen 26 Del Mar openers, but this will be his first as the head starter. He replaces Gary Brinson who was forced to return home to care for his ailing father.
Lopez literally worked in the trenches for 35 years as a starting gateman before being picked for this new opportunity. He says it's all about timing,"I'm looking for that first split second of silence, once the last horse hits that gate, I'll look for my man to get up on that ledge and turnaround and point that horse down the track. If I get that first second of silence, boom, I'll just hit it," Lopez said referring to the starters button.
Lopez is a big hit among the jockeys, including Chantal Sutherland, the new poster girl for the Del Mar Race track. "He's one of my favorite gate crew to come to. His timing is nice, he's soft with the horses, I love you, I love having you I'll miss you in the gate, but I'm glad your starting this year," Sutherland said.
And San Diego native and former jockey-turned-horse-owner Jeff Bloom agrees."The starter that understands the perspective of what it's like standing inside the stall with the horses and knows how to manage and manipulate horses is key," Bloom said.
But the horses aren't the only things attracting attention. Opening day at the races is the biggest social event of the year and it's easy to get lost in a sea of hats. Big hats and bigger hats and some so elaborate they could probably fly away on their own.The faces may have changed since 1947 when Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante and Al Jolson were regulars. But the crowds keep coming 75 years after the first race along the coast in Del Mar.