July 24, 2010
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Having a millinery moment

Having a millinery moment

 At age 55, I’ve been around the block, err, track, a few times, but I had never gone to opening day at Del Mar. It’s an event significant enough to put on your bucket list, and also one easy enough to cross off your list. The spa is only 84 miles from La Verne.

It seems everybody on Wednesday had the same idea. The 45,000 people that were crushing the turnstiles had come by train, car, cab, bike, pedicab, party bus, limo and even helicopter.

Most of these folks weren’t hardened and grizzled veterans of the racing game; they were simply people like me who wanted to leave the cares of the world behind for a few hours and who also wanted to catch a glimpse of the annual “One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest,” a track tradition featuring a parade of glamorous and outrageous hats on the first day of racing.

Fashion's new sherbert collection.

Fashion's new sherbet collection.

At one time, Del Mar was the preferred playground for the Hollywood set, including luminaries like Mickey Rooney, Ava Gardner, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Edward G. Robinson, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Jimmy Durante. The track’s founders were Bing Crosby and show biz pals like Pat O’Brien, Oliver Hardy and Gary Cooper, so Hollywood’s fingerprints are all over this joint.

But on opening day now, the new celebrities are human peacocks and flamingoes sporting and sprouting the most colorful plumage. In fact, so entrancing were these exotic birds that for the first time in my life, I never saw an actual live race. Why watch horses gallop around an oval race after race when you’re already in the midst of one of the world’s most captivating carnivals this side of Rio. I’ve been to Pamplona, but not even a charging bull could have got me to give up my seat strategically positioned just outside the judging area.

Deal us in.

Deal us in.

From 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Plaza de Mexico, what seemed like hundreds of contestants lined up to compete in four different hat categories: 1) Best Racing Theme, 2) Funniest or Most Outrageous, 3) Most Glamorous and 4) Best Flowers/All Others. It was as if milliners had come out of the 1920s and ruled the world again such was the magnificent mélange and march of fedoras and other human hood ornaments on display. If you were caught without a cap, you were a just nobody with a Racing Form and a losing $2 ticket.

The top winner won two American Airlines to fly anywhere in the United States, and there was another $2,000 up for grabs for the top head-turners, but really anybody who showed up, whether you were a participant or an observer, was a winner.

And that’s what Del Mar is all about. Win or lose at the betting windows, you’re supposed to have fun here. Unlike other race tracks, Del Mar caters mainly to 25-50 year-old customers, but if you’re an old guy (or gal), you can still join in the fun. Every Friday (and many Saturdays, too) over the seven-week span, Del Mar offers an outstanding concert series, with concerts by Pinback, The B52’s, Weezer, Super Diamond, ZZ Top and other top groups.

Concerts are free with racetrack admission purchased before the last race. Admission for concertgoers entering after the horses have left the gate for the last race is $20.

Balancing a saucer like hat on your head as a small train circles the perimeter is not as easy as it looks.

Balancing a saucer-like sombrero on your head as a small train circles the perimeter is not as easy as it looks.

If you’re watching your dollars, and who isn’t these days, attending Del Mar on Wednesdays may be your best bet. The track’s Free & Easy Wednesdays include complimentary Stretch Run admission and seating, a free program and half-priced discounts on domestic beer, soda and hotdogs.

Family Sundays, sponsored by Toyota, are a pretty good deal for families, too. Every Sunday, all season long, a family of four can enjoy the races for as little as $6 for the entire day with the free Diamond Club membership.

Party crasher -- at least he came with a hat.

Party crasher -- at least he came with a hat.

Del Mar succeeds because while it offers championship thoroughbred racing, it never takes itself too seriously. Sure, Zenyatta, the great 6-year-old mare and undefeated winner of 17 races, is expected to race here in August, but so too are Wiener dogs, which will take their post positions in the Wiener Dog National San Diego Finals on Sept. 6.

The memory of Cougar II, a great Chilean thoroughbred and a Hall of Famer, is duly honored with the running of the Cougar II Handicap on July 30, but July 30 is also the day that Miss Cougar Del Mar will be crowned, honoring that one ageless and single cougar still on the prowl. Last year’s inaugural cougar contest was a riot, and no doubt this year’s edition will help make it a seaside staple for years to come.

Del Mar isn’t just a seaside showcase for great racing. It’s a seaside spa to enjoy the summer, sun, sand, and surf at your own pace — where life is truly wonderful with or without a hat.

To stay abreast of the Del Mar scene this summer, visit Better yet, “take a plane, take a train, take a car.” Just get find a way to get down here fast!

Filed by Peter Bennett, July 22, 2010

All the contestants ponied up to the judge's booth.





All the contestants ponied up to the judge's booth.

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