Down at Old (And New) Del Mar
I’ve been coming to Del Mar for more than 30 years, and while it lacks the racing traditions of its East Coast counterpart in Saratoga, the seaside track provides an invigorating experience each season I return. Reinvented 20 years ago in a new facility, Del Mar is about more than Thoroughbred racing and gambling: it’s entertainment, from the opening day extravaganza that has become a “must do” event for San Diegans, to the Summer Concert Series that attracts a young and enthusiastic crowd, to the hippity hop races for kids, and the Sing Along With Bing daily ritual.
A day at Del Mar begins and ends with the Bing Crosby song, “Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” and despite that homage to one of the track’s co-founders, Del Mar’s “cool as ever” marketing campaign is modern, slick, and effective.
Naysayers suggest track president Joe Harper and his management team only have to unlock the gates to fill up the place, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Let’s go back to 1987, the year before simulcasting allowed Los Angeles residents to bet on Del Mar at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park. Del Mar’s opening day of 1987 drew a crowd of 29,856. That number dropped for several years, but then the reinvention began. Opening day became a “happening”: more than 40,000 people have showed up to usher in the new season for each of the last last nine years.
Del Mar used to be the laggard on the Southern California circuit, in terms of crowd sizes and purses. Today, it is the leader. That didn’t happen by accident.
Paulick Report editor-in-chief Scott Jagow and I spent the first week of the 2013 meeting at Del Mar, and it was a lot of fun putting together the Del Mar Diaries video series (well, maybe not as much fun for Scott, who did the production work into the wee hours each night). We tried to convey the energy of opening day, the passion of Trevor Denman, who is calling the Del Mar races for the 30th year, the dedication of starter Gary Brinson and his hard-working team, and the creativity of marketing executive Craig Dado’s Summer Concert Series that is helping build and educate the next generation of racing fans.
You can’t go to the races at Del Mar and not feel some optimism for the future, despite all the problems our game has both in California and throughout the United States. It’s a snapshot of something that works: appreciation for the past with an eye to the future. It’s long been said that if you could bottle the energy and excitement of Del Mar and distribute it to tracks around the country, we’d be in much better shape. We tried to bottle a little of that excitement in these Diaries.