Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Del Mar Racetrack: 'Where The Surf Meets the Turf'

By Ross Everett

Though it is sometimes overshadowed by more famous tracks back East like Churchill downs and Belmont Park, Del Mar Racetrack in Southern California has a rich and fascinating history. Located 20 miles north of San Diego and known for its iconic slogan "Where The Surf Meets the Turf", Del Mar has not only hosted the best horses and jockeys on the planet but a 'who's who' of show biz elite.

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club was founded by a group of well heeled enthusiasts in the mid'30s, and they immediately turned their attention to building a world class horse racing venue. The names that were instrumental in the creation of Del Mar include a whos who of American entertainment--most notably Bing Crosby, Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy) and Jimmy Durante. At the time the facility opened thoroughbred horse racing was the second most popular sport in America behind major league baseball, and Del Mar quickly gained a reputation for being a player in the industry.

The starpower drawn to the course was unprecedented. Bing Crosby himself greeted patrons at the gate on opening day, and during the late'30s and early'40s it became a place to be seen for Hollywood A-listers and those who aspired for celebrity. In addition to known gambling enthusiasts like W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen and Red Skelton, the Del Mar patrons during that time also included some of the top female stars of the era including Ava Gardner, Paulette Goddard and Dorothy Lamour

In'38, Del Mar hosted an internationally anticipated match race between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti. This event drew a record crowd and gained worldwide notoriety for the track. Seabiscuit won the $25,000 winner-take-all duel by a nose, and would forever be enshrined in the annals of American popular culture. Horse racing at Del Mar continued to be a smash until the facility went dark in'41 due to World War II. It would remain closed until'45, and for a time was used as a training facility by the military.

After the war, Del Mar reopened with a bang. The track reopened the day after Japan formally surrendered to Allied forces, and on that day Del Mar attracted over 20,000 fans through its gates who wagered what at the time was a record $958,476. The postwar prosperity was also a boon to Del Mar, which also benefitted from the Santa Fe Railroads daily Racetrack Special that brought bettors down from Los Angeles to enjoy a day at the track. During the latter part of the decade a new crop of Hollywood glitterati would flock to Del Mar, including Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Mickey Rooney John Holmes, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Durante would become such a regular that the turf course at Del Mar would later be renamed in his honor.

Even though the popularity of horse racing among the mainstream populace would ebb over the years, Del Mar remains a viable part of the thoroughbred community to this day. Theyve updated their facility, with a state of the art grand stand and most recently a synthetic polytrack surface that was installed in 2007. The racing season at Del Mar begins in mid July, and hosts crowds of 20,000+ on a daily basis throughout.

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