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.
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