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Once a summer playground for the rich and famous, Del Mar is now a key part of the Southern California racing schedule in both the summer and fall. With the Pacific Ocean right across the street, the racetrack, set on the Del Mar Fairgrounds, is one of the most scenic in the United States. Known as “where the turf meets the surf”, it has always been a place to be and a place to be seen.
Home to numerous important races, including the Pacific Classic, Del Mar became even more of a key player in the national racing scene when it became host to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships for the first time in 2017. It will once again host America’s season-end championships in 2021.
Located just a short drive up the coast from San Diego, Del Mar offers year-round good weather to go along with excellent racing. For most of its existence, it attracted the best Thoroughbreds of the West each summer, and after the closure of Hollywood Park, it added a second meet each autumn to the racing season in 2014.
The addition of fall racing not only lured the Breeders’ Cup but also more East Coast horses as well, coming out to Del Mar for big races late in the season after the weather has already begun to turn in other areas of the country.
With great weather, great scenery, and great horses, the future looks very bright for Del Mar as one of America’s most popular racetracks.
Located approximately 20 miles north of downtown San Diego, and about an hour and a half drive down the coast from Los Angeles, Del Mar has been an ideal getaway for fans of racing since its opening more than eight decades ago.
While California boasts numerous venues for Thoroughbred racing, it is Santa Anita Park and Del Mar that stands above the rest as far as both quality of racing, as well as importance in the industry. While the track to the north hosts a longer season and more big races, Del Mar brings something special each year in two excellent race meets.
Since its official opening back in 1937, Del Mar has been an idyllic setting for the racing world to be showcased to an audience unlike any other in the sport. From the rich and famous, to the summer vacationer, to the everyday race fan, they all come together to enjoy some of the best horses American racing has to offer. It’s breathtaking setting on the Pacific Ocean combined with a summertime feel make it one of the must-visits for any true fan of racing.
More popular today than ever, the historic racetrack on the sunny and temperate West Coast will continue its tradition of being one of the most anticipated places to visit in American racing for the foreseeable future.
Just a few short years after the creation of Santa Anita Park to the north, the idea for a racetrack at Del Mar was born. Pitched the idea by local businessman, William A. Quigley, Hollywood icon Bing Crosby was sold on the venture.
A partnership including Crosby, fellow actors Pat O’Brien, Gary Cooper, Joe E. Brown, and businessman Charles S. Howard made the grand opening in 1937, one year after the creation of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. When Del Mar opened, Bing Crosby famously personally greeted the fans at the front gate.
It did not take long for Del Mar to become a major player on the national racing scene. On August 12, 1938, a winner-take-all match race between Charles S. Howard’s Seabiscuit and another top colt was set. Seabiscuit, who would become one of America’s most famous horses, edged Ligaroti by a nose. The race was the first nationwide broadcast of a Thoroughbred race by NBC radio and helped put both Seabiscuit and Del Mar on the map.
With a capacity of 44,000, it is one of the largest racetracks in the nation and has been home to live horse racing since its opening, other than a brief hiatus due to World War II. Each summer Del Mar held a single meet, until successfully adding a fall meeting in 2014.
More than five decades after its opening, Del Mar underwent a major renovation. The grandstand was torn down and rebuilt. With a new, updated look, the track was ready to unveil its first-ever million-dollar race. The Pacific Classic Stakes was inaugurated in 1991 and won by a top local 3-year-old named Best Pal.
With the advent of a fall meeting, after the closure of Hollywood Park to the north, Del Mar cemented its place among elite racetracks in the United States by hosting the Breeders’ Cup for the first time in 2017. It looks to be now a regular on the rotation, again scheduled to host the event in November 2021.
As the longtime racing place to be during the California summer, Del Mar has a feel unlike any other racetrack in the world, and as such, is full of traditions that make it what it is.
Since its first days of Bing Crosby greeting fans at the entrance, Del Mar has never failed in attracting celebrities to the track. Where the turf meets the surf, away from the business in Los Angeles and Hollywood, but close enough to be an easy and attractive commute, has long been the summer playground for many of America’s best-known stars. Many even call the local community home, with the racetrack a key thing to do around town. For more than eight decades, Del Mar has been frequented by celebrities, and that trend shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Perhaps one of the most important changes to the track over the years was when the infield was opened to spectators in the 1980’s. Today, it acts as a host to food trucks, family entertainment, and a strong beach vibe that helps make Del Mar the track that it is. An entire afternoon can be spent enjoying the outdoor feel of the infield which also adds to the scenery, as well as track attendance. No trip to Del Mar is complete without checking out the infield.
The opening day of summer racing is an event. The annual event draws tens of thousands of people dressed to impress from head to toe. Special energy to the official beginning of summer at Del Mar is unlike any other track in the country, and the large crowds make a day of it. Much like the tradition of the Kentucky Derby, the wearing of glamorous hats has become a thing to do. From the classic style of years gone by to a celebration of the Pacific Coast, to glamorous and even outlandish creations, be sure to wear your hat on opening day.
With a beautiful facility and view of the Pacific Ocean, you might think it hard for one aspect of the track to stand out at Del Mar, but the paddock manages to do just that. One of the track’s most beloved spots, each afternoon thousands of racing fans flock outside one of the most beautiful saddling areas in the world. There they see each race’s horses prepare to hit the track in hopes of becoming a winner at Del Mar. Perfectly adorned for where the turf meets the surf, the paddock rivals any racetrack in America.
The true feeling of an afternoon at Del Mar is captured beautifully in Bing Crosby’s song which is still played without fail daily on track …
Where the turf meets the turf
Down at Old Del Mar
Take a plain, take a train, take a car
There’s a smile on every face
And a winner in each race
Where the turf meets the turf at Del Mar
Over the years, many of the greatest horses in the history of American racing have raced at Del Mar during their beautiful summers on the Pacific Coast. Below are just a few of the legends of the track.
California’s first truly legendary racehorse, Seabiscuit actually began his career in the East where he was mostly unsuccessful in a busy early campaign. Things turned around for him when he changed barns and shipped west. A grandson of Man O’ War, the former claimer became the King of California, winning big races with regularity and breaking track records while doing it. A few months before his famous match race win over the great War Admiral in 1938, the rags to riches horse made his only start at Del Mar. Also a match race, he gave his opposition 15 pounds and was a game-winner in track record time. After a return from injury, he went out a winner in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap and retired as horse racing’s all-time leading money winner.
Known for his speed and incredible durability, Native Diver was a mainstay in California spanning seven seasons during a golden age of racing. The great gelding started 81 times with 37 victories between 1961 and 1967 and won virtually every major stakes race in California, including Del Mar’s San Diego Handicap three times. His final career race came when he set a track at the age of 8 while winning the 9 furlongs Del Mar Handicap. Sadly, the Hall of Fame runner was stricken with colic soon after that performance and was unable to be saved.
When you think of the Pacific Classic, one of the first horses that should come to mind is Best Pal. Before his success in Del Mar’s first million-dollar race, though, his career took off just north of San Diego as a 2-year-old. In the summer of 1990, he earned his first three stakes wins there, in succession, culminating with an easy win in the Del Mar Futurity. The son of Habitony came back the following summer to be the winner of the inaugural edition of Del Mar’s most important race, beating older horses. On his way to a Hall of Fame career that spanned seven successful seasons, the gelding returned to run in the Pacific Classic twice more and finished second and third in his other two attempts.
Arguably the greatest female runner ever to be stabled in the West, the big mare only raced where the turf meets the surf on three occasions, but she certainly made the most of her opportunities. Beloved in California for her consistency and her irresistible late run, among other things, the daughter of Street Cry came to Del Mar each summer from 2008 through 2010. She did not disappoint her many fans, as each time she finished with a flourish to get up and win the Clement L Hirsch Stakes. Upgraded to a Grade 1 event after her first victory, the Hirsch wins were just part of a wonderful career that saw Zenyatta named champion in each of the three seasons she competed at Del Mar.
California’s most popular horse of recent years, the champion earned his first-ever stakes victory at Del Mar when he won the Graduation Stakes in July of his juvenile season. More than a year later, and after already winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, California Chrome took to the Del Mar turf course to clinch his first Horse of the Year award with a victory in the Hollywood Derby. After missing most of the racing season at 4, the striking chestnut returned to the seaside oval at 5 to sweep the San Diego and Pacific Classic on his way to his second title as Horse of the Year.
On the human side, the legendary Lafit Pincay, Jr. is the all-time leader in wins at Del Mar with 1,013 victories at the seaside oval. The Hall of Fame rider is multiple winners in ten different stakes races at Del Mar, including having won the Rancho Bernardo nine times. Born in Panama, Pincay was a top jockey in the US for nearly five decades. He won the Eclipse Award as an outstanding rider five times and at the time of his retirement, he was the sport’s all-time winningest jockey with 9,530 career victories.
His training counterpart is the two-time Triple Crown winner, Bob Baffert. He moved to the top of Del Mar’s all-time winning trainer list in 2017 and is showing no signs of slowing down. His total currently stands at 518 career wins at Del Mar. Among his record amount of 133 stakes wins there is an incredible 14 victories in the prestigious Del Mar Futurity, which included seven in a row from 1996 to 2002. Baffert holds the seasonal record for stakes wins at Del Mar with 13 in 2000, and has also trained the winner of the Pacific Classic five times.
Taken to the races at a very young age, Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Professionally, his work has been published on several leading industry sites. Brian served as the Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, where he still writes a regular column and hosts the popular weekly webcast HorseCenter.
Email: [email protected]
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