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Hats And Horses Mean It Must Be Opening Day At Del Mar

Evening Edition

Aired 7/17/14 on KPBS News.

The 36-day summer race season starts Thursday, with the gates open at 11:30 a.m. and the first post at 2 p.m. for the thoroughbred racing.

Thursday isn’t officially a holiday, but for lovers of horse racing and hats, it kind of is.

It’s the start of the summer racing season at Del Mar. Gates open at the iconic seaside track at 11:30 a.m., with the first post at 2 p.m. for the thoroughbred racing.

But there's more than horses drawing the masses on opening day.

"It's the greatest party in San Diego,'' said Joe Harper, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. "It's the one good opportunity for everyone in San Diego to dress up, put on a hat and come have a good time.''

Credit: Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

Two women show off their hats at opening day of the Del Mar horse racing season in July 2013.

San Diego's sports calendar has other signature events: the first pitch of the Padres' season; the debut of another Chargers campaign; and the politically incorrect Over-The-Line Tournament. But they all take a backseat to Del Mar raising the curtain on another summer meet.

The storied venue hosted its first racing season in 1937, with crooner Bing Crosby (a big horse racing fan) welcoming guests to “old Del Mar” with a song that urged fans to “take a plane, take a train, take a car” to get there.

On Thursday, the race track will be brimming with an estimated 45,000 fans ready to bet and party. (And Interstate 5 will be brimming with cars, so motorists beware!)

“It's a fashionable playground,'' said Steve Valois, an Encinitas resident and Del Mar regular. "And it's kind of cool that you have people betting $5,000 up in the stands and $2 in the infield on a race.''

The scene will include patrons in their Sunday best and others praying for their exacta to click.

The wagering will be focused on the track, the first day of a meet that continues through Sept. 3 and will have an estimated $480 million handle.

But the scene will be a big part of Thursday.

Opening day is a tantalizing concoction of wild hats, summer dresses, seersucker suits and early drinking. And by the end of the day, the women who arrived in high-heeled shoes will have traded them in for flip-flops, one of the most popular items sold in the track’s souvenir shops.

"It's the time of the year,'' Valois said. "The sun is out and you can't find a better race track in the United States.''

Credit: Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

Horses charge from the starting gate at the Del Mar race track, Aug. 5, 2009.

Del Mar Race Track's Economic Impact Since 1970

• $402.9 million to state of California.

• $288.2 million to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

• $23.2 million to municipalities, including $10 million to Del Mar.

• $8 million to charity.

• $54.2 million to breeders/equine research.

Source: Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

And the region is an economic winner, too. The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club says the track provides 3,800 jobs during the summer with a payroll of more than $25 million.

This is the 75th season at Del Mar, and it comes with changes. The turf course was replaced and widened in a $5 million project, and the synthetic Polytrack upgraded.

There's also buzz about Del Mar introducing a 15-day fall meet on Nov. 7, after Hollywood Park in Inglewood closed last year. And last month Del Mar learned it would host the prestigious Breeders’ Cup in 2017.

"It's been a long lead-up to opening day,'' the track's Harper said. “This offseason has been really quite busy.''

But this summer’s race season does have at least one scratch.

Del Mar had sought to have California Chrome, the Orange County-trained horse that won two Triple Crown races this year, appear at its $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 24. But the horse’s trainers say it won’t be in racing shape. There was talk of having it parade down the backstretch, but California Chrome’s owners and Del Mar officials failed to strike a deal. The owners reportedly wanted a $50,000 appearance fee.

"We would have loved to have had California Chrome come here any day, really,'' Harper said. "But we just couldn't come to terms.''

But even with that bit of bad news, Thursday’s opening day promises to be a fun one. It’s even the 20th anniversary of the Hat Contest.

And once you've attended an opening day at Del Mar, you'll never miss it again. If you've never been, well, that's on you.

Jay Paris is a freelance sports columnist in San Diego County. Contact him at jparis8@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jparis_sports.

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