Jagow: In your heart of hearts, Del Mar or Saratoga?

by | 08.17.2012 | 7:34am
Del Mar & Saratoga

Del Mar or Saratoga?

It's one of those questions like “beach or mountains?”  “Burgers or pizza?”  “Sauna or hot tub?”

You can enjoy both, but in your heart of hearts, you know it's one or the other.

Since I'm among the fortunate few to attend both tracks in the same season this year, I've been internally debating my own answer to the Del Mar or Saratoga question.

While dusting the sand off my past performances and dipping my toes into the Pacific last month, I thought I might just be a Del Mar guy.  The ocean breeze, the Spanish-style, pristine venue, the always reliable “fast and firm,” the sensational spectacle of opening day, the beach scene – they all combine to make the Southern California track feel idyllic, like a painting named Del Mar by the Sea.

As the gentle sun warms your face in the paddock and the bright silks race under a clear blue, it's hard not to contemplate staying forever and whistling Bing Crosby all the day.

Those visions danced in my head last week while I was crammed into a tiny shelter with 15 other people in Saratoga's backyard.  The rain, which derisively came blasting from the sky five minutes before the first race, poured in sheets for the next.  And the next.  And the next.  All of the highly-competitive grass contests I spent hours studying were washed off, and my quickly-dampening handicapping notes were next to useless anyway since it was all about guessing mudders now.

Where the turf meets the surf, down at old Del Mar.  Take a plane. Take a train.  Take a car.

Any mode of transportation would've done at that point, really.

The thing is, no one was going anywhere.  The hundreds of people, like me, who got up at the crack of dawn to reserve picnic tables for the day, weren't about to bail on the party because of a little (okay, a lot) of rain.  These are hearty, dedicated souls in the backyard at Saratoga.  I couldn't imagine the SoCal crowd digging in like this.  Despite the weather, our group had a grand old time, sipping cocktails, reminiscing and running – definitely running – to the windows to bet the mudders now and then.

The next day, some of us took in the unique backstretch tour, where we learned tidbits about the track's history while side-stepping plops of manure.  When Saratoga first opened, they only ran a couple of races a day because most of the Thoroughbreds were off serving in the war – the Civil War.   It's pretty heady to stand there and feel the weight of 149 years while also inhaling barn odors that might be nearly as old.  It's the kind of thing I live for.

Later, after everyone else finally had enough of the smells and horses tromping through puddles (yes, it poured again), I returned to the track for a solo visit to bond with the hearty souls I recognized so well.  I wrapped up the day watching the final leg of the Pick 4 at a nearby tavern.

“I like the three,” the woman next to me said, tapping her finger on a partially-tattered copy of the Daily Racing Form.  She and everyone else around the horseshoe-shaped bar were talking about the race.

“We're thinking maybe the 10,” a couple on the other side of the bar chimed in.  “He's bred for the slop.  And you?”

“I need the five to hit the Pick 4,” I said.  “So, I pledge my allegiance to him.”

“Oooh, well maybe we should be pulling for the five then,” laughed the woman with the DRF.

We turned our heads toward the sound of Tom Durkin's voice.  The field was breaking from the gate on each and every television above the bar.  They turned for home, and the three looked like he might be the winner.  But the five was coming, and I instinctively shot up from my stool, leaning in the direction of the finish line, because of course, I can give the horse an extra gear this way.

“Get up!  Get up!”  I shouted amid a chorus of imploring voices.

The horseshoe erupted into a cacophony of cheers and groans, as the five did indeed win by a neck.  The woman next to me beamed, even though her horse just got nipped.

“Nice one!” she said.

“Thanks.  I lost one of those yesterday,” I said, happy to buy the next round.  Later, I bought dinner for our group at a restaurant called Tiznow.  Yep, the signs were all around me.

I realized in the end, this is where I belonged.  While Del Mar is nearer perfection and a wonderful racing vacation, Saratoga feels like home to this racing fan.  During the season, the whole town is absorbed with the track and the upcoming races and the horses and everything that comes with the sport, mud puddles and all.

At Del Mar, the prevailing opinion was that East Coasters who'd never visited had no idea what they were missing.  I agree.  There is nothing like it.  And you don't have to bring a change of clothes to the track because you might be drenched by rain or humidity sweat.

Both Del Mar and Saratoga should be at the top of anybody's horse racing bucket list.  Both have fantastic restaurants, activities, scenes and charm, as we debated last year.

But if it came down to it, I know in my heart of hearts, the answer for me.

I'm a Saratoga guy.

  • Franklin

    Stupid article.

  • Rachel

    I live off the coast in New England…but have been visiting in San Diego 4 of the last 5 years during Delmar meet…

    Living here in New England, I have enough of rainy days, mosquitos, mud, pollen and mosquitos…

    Absolutely Delmar! It’s fun and friendly, sunny and energetic…The only drawback is timing your trip on the 5.

  • Waquoit

    Racing on fake dirt is never better.

  • Anne M.

    Del Mar – not even close

  • John Greathouse

    Saratoga..no comparison!

  • Randy in Lakeland

    I have been to both. Saratoga is my favorite. Delmar is a great place but you might as well be in Mexico. Saratoga has charm and class that Delmar will never have.

  • Ted_mudge

    I have been very fortunate to attend Saratoga 27 times and Del Mar 13 times. I went to Deauville last summer, for the first time, and returned for a longer stay this year. It is not to be missed, as there is the best of both Del Mar and Saratoga. Restaurants that rival the Pamplemousse and Siro’s, night life that compares with the Spa, racing that is every bit as good as either, and a crowd of passionate and knowledgeable racegoers. If you love good racing and good times, this should be on your bucket list!

  • Triplecrownquest

    Saratoga.  The end

  • MA

    Santa Anita.

  • Five2_three

     Blue blood bred horses running in 80k maiden races at the oldest race track in the country, where the favorites are not guaranteed and the ghost of racing greats long gone can often been seen galloping through the morning fog. I will take that any day over five horse field’s running on fake dirt.

  • Rjssully

    me too , perfect article

  • guest

    This is like asking which Sports Illustrated model is prettiest!

  • Mike

    Not even debatable.  Saratoga blows Del Mar away.

  • Don Reed

    Oh, Scott – really!  We discussed this last year.

  • Don Reed

    I understand how the Pamp would stand up in a comparison to Deauville, but the ridiculously expensive & just so-so Siro’s? 

    I wouldn’t even dare try to compare it to some of the restaurants in the SARATOGA area. 

  • Don Reed

    The speed limit on the 5 is 5.  Five feet every five minutes.

    It is the only highway in the world that can make a speeding ticket an animated topic of conversation among science fiction readers at book conventions.

  • Kris

    Both are great meets that for an all-too-brief moment makes me think that all is well with racing.  Enjoy your Summer racing, folks.

  • i,m 68 years old,retired and moved to Del Mar to be near the track,For 5 years i rented a condo overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the track ,saw a Kentucky Derby winner  Giacamo and the wonderfull Zenyatta win from my patio.i have insrtucted my daughter that i want my ashes spread over the turf course,unfortunately the people that own the

     condo wanted to move back in and i got the boot.
    i now live 3 miles away  in a super condo ,that can,t come close to the spectacular view that i had.
    However…as great as ithe way of life ,the huge pools,great looking girls,the racing  at Saratoga is way better to that at Del Mar.
    Del Mar used to be Great but now with this Stupid Polytrack .it can,t hold a candle to Saratoga!

  • voiceofreason

    This is a debate like discussing who’s better, the Beatles or Paul Anka. If it’s thoroughbred racing… it’s Saratoga.

  • Robyn Hoffmann

    This article was absolutely delightful.  I have to say that I’ve never been to either of these fine tracks yet, but for me, the first choice would have to be Saratoga.  The history, the tradition, those aspects about Saratoga call out to me.    

  • Kfminton

    I was going to say Deauville, but you beat me to it!

  • queenZen

    Having the chance to visit numerous tracks across the country, I find it hard to best Saratoga.  Its such a wonderful area.   Everyone in Saratoga lives and breathes horse racing for at least 40 days every summer.  When it came time to retire, I moved from SoCal to a few blocks away from the Spa..  I’m now walking distance and walk down to see them practice on the track every morning.  Life is good.  I do love Woodbine and Santa Anita.  Del-mar is fun.   Tampa Bay Downs has a feel all its own.    But I just always come back to the spa.  Now excuse me, I’ve got to finish handicapping the pick 6.

  • Ssk12955

    I have been to both tracks. Nothing beats Toga for the six weeks. Horsecentric people everywhere. It’s the spa by many lenghts.

  • Erik Weiss

    Zen, mentioning TB in the same comment with Saratoga makes me want to throw-up.

  • been to both

    del mar is the greatest for people enjoyment but Saratoga is the best of horseracing for the horses sake. Nearly every trainer will tell you their HORSES love Saratoga, but very few horses like the surface at del mar, the turf course is hard and narrow. the lush turf at saratoga,  in comparison is a horses dream. You can take any of your horses to the grass course at Oklahoma, Del Mar doesn’t even run short Maiden races on the grass, not even MSW. The track is narrow, crowded, and so uncomfortable for the  the horse, a significant number of trainers leave most of their horses at hollywood now. Del Mar couldn’t care less about the surface as long as their handle is up. If you want to go to the beach, party, and have great weather, and comfort, go to Del Mar.  If you want the finest in horseracing then its Saratoga hands down.

  • Buffalo83

    I’m a Del Mar guy but the town of Del Mar does not revolve around racing. We left the track a couple of Saturdays ago after the 9th race and there was one more race to go. We went to the Brigantine which is basically on the property of the race track and while at the bar waiting for our table we watched the 10th on TVG. I think out of the 100 people in the bar, my friend and I, who had a late double going, were the only two people paying attention to the race.
    I can’t imagine the scenery at Saratoga even being close to Del Mar and nothing beats being 1/4 from the Pacific in the summer.
    Both tracks are different and have something great to offer.

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram