Del Mar racetrack on opening day is a little like that restaurant Yogi Berra used to talk about: “No one goes there anymore; it's too crowded,” he has often been quoted as saying.
There were 43,459 on-hand Wednesday, the largest opening in the track's history and the second-largest crowd ever behind the 44,181 who turned out for the 1996 Pacific Classic when Cigar was upset by Dare And Go.
Many of the daily regulars at the track where the turf meets the surf stay home on opening day to avoid the gridlock that begins on the city streets and extends to the admission gates and throughout the facility.
Some of the attendees might have been aware there was horse racing going on throughout the day, but as always more people were at the Del Mar opening to see and be seen rather than watch Thoroughbreds racing. Some also might have noticed that the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club doubled the price of clubhouse admission just for opening day from $10 to $20, but that had no apparent effect on attendance. Neither did the $4.75 per gallon gas prices or the foreclosure crisis that has hit California particularly hard.
The decision to raise opening day prices was made before some of the problems in the economy surfaced, said Joe Harper, the longtime president of Del Mar. “As someone who takes nine kids to Sea World, coming to Del Mar is still a pretty good deal,” Harper said.
The track's marketing team said past surveys indicated to them that a majority of the opening day fans weren't aware of admission prices. Track regulars who are in the Diamond Club rewards program pay just $3 for grandstand admission and $6 for the clubhouse.
This was the second year for the synthetic Polytrack surface, and Del Mar has changed its maintenance procedures to speed up the track in the afternoons. There were numerous complaints by horsemen in 2007 that the surface became too slow in the afternoon heat, especially compared to its condition during morning training hours. The temperature of the surface is now being monitored throughout the day, and water is added to cool it down whenever necessary. That process began shortly after training hours on Wednesday.
The result was a much faster track, with several track records set throughout the day.
No opening day would be complete without the “One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest,” which has become a popular tradition at the track. Some of the hats are fashionable and others are outrageous and ridiculous. Some of them come with message. One of the day's winners, in the “best flowers” division, was Crystal Chessher, whose pink floral hat was a tribute to the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure breast cancer awareness charity. Dozens of ribbons attached to the flying saucer-sized hat had the names of breast cancer patients who were an inspiration for Chessher.
On a far lighter note, one of the finalists in the “funniest or most outrageous” category wore a Batman costume topped off by a bizarre horse's head hat. He was accompanied by someone dressed as the Joker. Batman was chased out of the winner's circle area by track officials before the post parade for the day's seventh race for fear he might scare the horses.
It's a good thing there weren't any young children around.
By Ray Paulick
Copyright ©2008, The Paulick Report
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