On the edge of the ocean, behind a seaside cliff a few exits north of San Diego, is a place where ponies run, people play and all manner of horseplay happens.
It's the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, though most patrons prefer to refer to it as "where the turf meets the surf." Since its inception in 1937, Del Mar has always been more about the atmosphere than the action. Co-founder Bing Crosby saw to that and invited down cronies Jimmy Durante, W.C. Fields and even Marlyn Monroe.
These days, anyone with an admission ticket can be celebrity, if only for a minute, a moment or a day.
From late July thru early September – July 18-Sept 5 in 2012– the Del Mar Fairgrounds become a playground for social-seeking adults.
This is the most extravagant hat at Opening Day, perhaps of all time.
You've heard about pretty in pink, but how about awesome in orange!
Two beautiful girls dressed up for opening day and one geek trying to spoil the photo.
This girl said her name is Mercedes and she's certainly as stylish as the car.
Opening Day in 2012 set a new attendance record of 47,339. That broke the previous year's record of 46,588, which broke the 2010 record of 45,309. Opening Day has set attendance records for eight straight years. In 2011, the races ran an hour and half behind schedule, finishing at 6:30 instead of 5 because lines for betting and restrooms were half an hour, some cash machines were not working and there more women in the men's bathroom than men. There was $1.5 million spent on food and beverage, mostly on the latter.
The backdrop of horse racing and wagering is just that – a backdrop to a day spent checking out the opposite sex, striking up conversations, seeing old friends and trying to meet new ones, all with beer, cocktail or wine in hand.
The setup is sensational – bars, balconies and people abound on gorgeous grounds in old Mexico style, all glowing under the California sunshine.
There's several places to go – the courtyard, the stands, the infield – but there's no hurry to be in anywhere because they are all happening. Think kicked-back Kentucky Derby.
Peak times are the weekends but by far Del Mar tops out on Opening Day. It's always a Wednesday but for those there it's like a Saturday. For many, it's an annual ritual, one of the area's premier see-and-be-seen events.
The mood is playful, the balconies are bustling and the surest betof the day is that most of the 40,000 will have made more frequent trips to the bars than the betting windows.
Girls love posing for the cameras in their great hats on Opening Day.
The clubhouse crowd is mostly upscale, 30+, while the GA-goers are a bit younger with more of a "party down" mentality. PubClub highly recommends spending the extra $3 for the clubhouse pass for access to both areas.
Shorts and sundresses are the main wardrobe choices, though a few feel the desire to dress up for the occasion. Many women (and some men) wear hats – there's even a hat contest on Opening Day – giving the event a touch of a Jimmy Buffett tailgate party. Certainly the same carefree "let's have a drink and smile" attitude is readily apparent.
Girls in sun dresses with beers; isn't opening day grand!?
The racing action goes from 2-5 but the hats are on display all day.
Racing action runs from 2-5 p.m. (except for some special events) and most people are in by 1. The closest bar or concession area is usually the first stop; from there, the day is spent cruising about the grounds at a leisurely California pace.
The large Plaza de Mexico courtyard just beyond the entrance is one of the most popular hangouts. Jockeys and horses parade around before they race and a small stage hosts concerts. These "Four O'clock Fridays" are popular among San Diego's singles set.
Gathering to discuss betting strategy? Or drinking strategy???
The Del Mar ground are beautiful; take a moment to soak in the scenery.
The infield has a lake, picnic tables, even a tiki bar (though a steel drum band would be a nice addition).
Clubhouse ticket holders can wander into the grandstands, watch the horses come out for the post and and even lean against the fence along the front straightaway to see their horse of choice win or lose up close.
Del Mar Opening Day Tip Sheet
Arrive by 1; races run 2-7 p.m.
Get the Clubhouse ticket ($20) instead of the GA ($10); it provides access to more areas of the facility.
Lines can be VERY LONG on Opening Day; be patient when betting, getting a drink and going to the bathroom
Don't drink and drive! Not only to cops patrol Via de la Valle well into the night, it's just not a good idea...Some groups opt to "rent" tables at the one of the outdoor trackside restaurants; for $60, the table is reserved all day and makes for a home base of operations (food purchases required).
In short, people can go just about anywhere except on the actual racing surface. Horse tracks are incredible low-key and fan friendly (though Del Mar is overwhelmed on busy days so expect long, long lines for drinks, the bathroom and at the betting windows).
Wagering is at any of many windows, staffed by friendly and, to the rookie gambler, helpful employees. Veterans prefer the automated machines (purchasing a voucher for a set dollar amount is required for transactions); the lines are much shorter here. Entry bets are $2. Regardless of the amount wagered, the thrill of cheering madly for a horse to win, place or show is electric, especially during a big and lively event like Opening Day.
Where To Party After The Races
Once the day's racing ends, that's hardly the end of the party. The Brigantine restaurant and bar is within walking distance out the back gate. Its upscale restaurant deck overlooks the track and the Pacific, the side bar patio shares the same view for mingling railbirds and there's a front patio and inside bar for the see-and-be-seen scene.
Jimmy O's is the traditional place to be at night and on Fridays is quite popular among the North County nightlife crowd. A couple of other places to check out are En Fuego with its downstairs bar patio and Tuesday night crowd, Epaztoa and, for old times (and old timer's) sake, Bully's. All are within a couple of blocks of one another at the intersection of 15th Street and Camino Del Mar, about a mile from the track.
The Del Mar restaurant/bar signature drink is a margarita served in a shaker ($9-12). For more, including the surrounding area, se our North County, including Del Mar, La Jolla guide.