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  Cover Story July 15th, 2010     
Untitled Document

by Frederick Gomez

With the Del Mar Thoroughbred Racing Season just around the bend (July 21 thru September 8), and a new Disney movie on racehorse legend, Secretariat, slated for nationwide release this year (October 8, 2010), the horse-racing game may well anticipate a royal year, befitting of its sobriquet as the Sport of Kings.

As it is, there are already plenty of traffic jams via Jimmy Durante Blvd. for avid race-goers en route to the famed seaside oval that Bing Crosby croons about in his "Where the Turf Meets the Surf" anthem.

On this 'Road to Del Mar' that Crosby helped pave, you will encounter the environs that harbor the celebrated 'horse-racing fever,' an annual six-week visitation that makes this seaside community world-famous.

Speaking of Crosby, his lyrics grace each day of racing at beautiful Del Mar; once before the first race, and after the last one. The signature line, "Where the turf meets the surf," was first suggested to Crosby in 1938; it was expanded upon and later set to music by James V. Monaco.

In a sport that has had more ups-and-downs than a freight elevator, the Del Mar racetrack is an aberrant. Some tracks have reached their demise, while others face uncertain futures. The fabled Hollywood Park Racetrack, owned by Bay Meadows Land Co., recently faced possible closure, and Santa Anita Racetrack filed for bankruptcy protection on March 6, 2009. In contradistinction, Del Mar's marvelous racing oval parts company, owning 20-year 'bragging rights' as one of the top horse-racing enterprises in North America, in both daily attendance and handle (that's the green stuff). On average, the seaside track handles a massive $13-million each racing day!

The Kentucky Derby, at Churchill Downs, is America's most popular horse race, often called "The Most Famous Two Minutes In Sports." It can, and has, drawn well over 150,000 on-track fans. The Kentucky Oaks, also at Churchill Downs, can draw upwards of 115,000 attendees. These events are known as 'spike' days. After these stellar events, Churchill's on-track average drops, dramatically, like Icarus dropped from the heavens.

According to Del Mar's Fact Sheet (courtesy of Mac McBride, Director of Media Relations), Del Mar's track has "been a national leader in terms of daily average attendance for the past two decades. In 2009 the on-track attendance was 17,181 per day." This figure balloons to a daily average of about 30,000 if one includes Del Mar's offsite fans, wagering at the various 15 satellite facilities in the SoCal region.

One reason the Del Mar Racetrack has such renown is its rare pedigree, which makes its genesis a storied one. Among its Founding Fathers are movie stars of the first magnitude: Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien. And, if that were not enough to give lustre to its legend-and-lore, the track's first board meetings were held at Hollywood's Warner Brothers Studios, in Burbank, California. The early Board of Directors was composed of stars that would rival the empyrean: Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame), Jimmy Durante, Charles S. Howard (owner of Seabiscuit), Kent Allen, and La Jolla resident William Quigley, who was Director of Racing and General Manager. Bing's brother, Everett, was Secretary of the Treasury. The Executive Committee consisted of acting legend, Gary Cooper, and comedian, Joe E. Brown.

When the track first opened its turnstiles to the public on July 3, 1937, Crosby was there to initially, take tickets from incoming patrons. Crosby was a natural, with a phlegmatic persona that became his trademark. It would not surprise me if the relaxed crooner, who loved to play golf, ever fell asleep during his backswing!

With mega-stars at the helm of this fledgling racing enterprise, the racetrack became a clarion for others to follow. And follow they did. Interspersed in the crowds were the likes of Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, as well as other notables too numerous to mention.

It was no secret that the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, scheduled his annual medical checkups at Scripps Clinic so that they coincided with Crosby's horse-racing meets at Del Mar. Hoover loved the seaside track and was most uninhibited in being photographed there, even proudly posing with the jockeys in the jockey room!

The early years were colorful in more ways than one. The track's first race of the day was sometimes delayed because the Santa Fe Railroad, carrying bettors from Los Angeles, was late in arrival. It became a tradition for fans of the day to hoot and holler when the train came into view. Parties often started on the train ride south and continued long into the evening at the track, sometimes lasting until the next morning. The press soirees were even more legendary. They were often hosted by comedian George Jessel - known as "Mr. Toastmaster" - who held court over celebs like Al Jolson, the Ritz Brothers, Danny Thomas, and a young, upcoming comedian by the name of Bob Hope.

Today, Del Mar's 'Horse-Racing Fever' continues to be a bountiful blessing for the greater San Diego economy. Del Mar's 'Bauble-By-The-Sea' track, and its facilities, are owned by the State of California, and controlled by the 22nd District Agricultural Association. This ownership also operates the San Diego County Fair at Del Mar, one of the largest fairs in the country.

The economic impact of the Del Mar Racetrack, alone, is astonishing. Since 1970, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (DMTC), which operates the racing, has paid almost $694.9-million to the state, its agencies and municipalities, as well as to a variety of charitable organizations. Since its inception, the DMTC has paid out $384.6-million to the state of California, $233.3-million to the Del Mar Fairgrounds and almost $10-million to the City of Del Mar. Additionally, $7.5-million was ear-marked for charity, and $47.6-million to equine research and breeding.

At the height of Del Mar's horse-racing season, North County hotels enjoy occupancy rates of up to 86.7%, with many hotels exceeding 90% occupancy. An economic study by the University of San Diego's School of Business calculates that the seaside track generates $90-million in spending, year after year.

One of the reasons for Del Mar's current horse-racing success lies in its administrative prowess, as well as the uncanny placement of skilled personnel in key areas of operation. The pyramid of business acumen is stunning: Joe Harper (C.E.O), Craig Fravel (President and General Manager), Michael Ernst (Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President), Thomas Robbins (Racing Secretary and Executive Vice President), as well as Mac McBride (Director of Media Relations).

Del Mar's track announcer, Trevor Denman, is widely regarded as one of the industries greatest exponents of the game. Aside from his trackside talent, Denman's popularity has even inspired a hearty and loyal fan club!

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club's upcoming 71st season may well become an indelible one.

Superhorse, Zenyatta, the 6-year-old-mare who climbed onto a tier of immortality by snagging her 17th successive victory at Hollywood Park, June 13, 2010, may make another appearance at the Del Mar Racetrack this summer. Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss (and wife, Ann), have tentatively put Del Mar on their campaign trail. The miracle horse, who has managed to accomplish what no other modern American thoroughbred has been able to (in nonrestricted races), now has the Grade 1, Clement L.Hirsch Stakes, at Del Mar, in her cross-hairs, August 7, 2010.

Zenyatta, and jockey Mike Smith, who pilots the great racehorse, are the darling duo of the sports world, and their every move is chronicled for future generations to, one day, read about in the record books and view on archival footage. Zenyatta and Smith have emerged as inextricable athletes with a fan-base that girdles the globe. For the past three years, the horse's trainer, John Shirreffs, has found it necessary to put cotton in Zenyatta's ears - so that crowd noise will not distract her in competition.

The Great One has already won the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar twice; if she wins it again, this summer, she will become the only equine to do so, three times! Regardless, win or lose, Zenyatta's placement in the pantheon of great thoroughbreds is already secured.

I asked Del Mar's media relations guru, Mac McBride, what he attributes to Del Mar's unrivaled popularity down thru the years. McBride believes it is the continuation of the fun and relaxed atmosphere that Bing Crosby founded. It is a place to escape from the Big City and the daily grind of worry and pressure that goes along with it. That and the combination of location, weather, music and "fun in the sun."

Some have called Del Mar's racing facility, "The Nirvana of Racetracks," and for good reason.

The late, ABC Sportscaster, Jim McKay, marveled at its Spanish Colonial architectural beauty, as well as its placement by the breathtaking coastline.

When I hear Crosby singing his patented lyrics on race day, I can't help but feel how his song, like the sirens of ancient mythology, keep beckoning us back, year after year, in a tradition that seems utterly irresistible.

It is horse-racing fever, Del Mar style.

The great match race between Seabiscuit and speedster, Ligaroti, was staged at the Del Mar track on August 12, 1938, with a winner-take-all purse of $25,000. The race was carried over the airwaves; the first national broadcast by NBC Radio.

It was a ferocious battle, with each horse exchanging head-bobs throughout the 1 1/8-mile distance. The Biscuit won by the narrowest of margins (his nose), in the new track record time of 1:49, demolishing the previous record by an astonishing four seconds! Since it was a photo finish, I believe my assumption is correct that both horses - technically - broke the track record that day!

Del Mar's racing oval was becoming well known from the legions of two-legged stars that patronized its meets, but, it was the four-legged variety (in the form of Seabiscuit) that gave the Del Mar Racetrack the national recognition and validation it yearned. Overnight, the track that sidles up to the mighty blue waters of the Pacific had instantly become a dominant force in the world of thoroughbred racing!

Laura Hillenbrand's literary tribute to the great horse - Seabiscuit: An American Legend - remains the most vivid magnum opus chronicling the great horse's life. From Hillenbrand's literary exposition came the 2003 movie rendition (Universal Studios) that became an unprecedented "mainstream" hit that garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture! No other motion picture of a famous racehorse has ever achieved this level of popular acceptance. The film on brilliant racehorse, Phar Lap (Twentieth Century-Fox, c. 1984), was remarkable, but, the commercial success of the book and movie on Seabiscuit remains unsurpassed, to this time.

Since his death in 1947, Seabiscuit's popularity has staged a comeback worthy of Lazarus.

The small warrior horse that stood but 15.2 hands at the withers, became a giant in the eyes of the world. His greatness came about by the most grueling of routes. His first year of racing as a juvenile horse, age two, saw him embroiled in a suicidal campaign of 35 races! For a dose of sobriety, that is more races in his first year, alone, than the mighty Man o' War, or the sensational Secretariat, ever raced in their entire careers, respectively.

How Seabiscuit even survived his first season of brutal racing remains a ponderous question mark. How he was able to excel is intoxicating to ponder.

The grandson of Man o' War, Seabiscuit was often plagued with injuries and episodes of lameness that relegated him to the sidelines. Yet, through the debris of his life, he somehow built a kingdom seldom seen in horse-racing annals. He became 1938 Champion Horse of the Year and the world's leading money-making horse in 1940. He never lost a match race, and his exploits over adversity takes one's breath away.

This was the horse that "put Del Mar on the map." On historical terms, the Biscuit and Del Mar go together like Hollywood and prenups. It would be appropriate if, someday, Seabiscuit's effigy finds its way onto the Del Mar racing grounds. (Santa Anita Park has a sculpture of Seabiscuit in its paddock arena.)

Many memories trudge thru my mind when I think of this 'Jewel by the Pacific' track. I recall meeting Laffit Pincay, Jr., the Panamanian Wonder, who once held the mantle of "World's Winningest Jockey." Pincay, Jr., had a way with words and could dichotomize his opinions with surgeon-like precision. For example, he once uttered: "Affirmed was the greatest horse I ever rode; Secretariat was the greatest horse I ever saw."

August 10, 1996, stands out in my mind. It was a hot day leaving my residence and heading to the Del Mar Racetrack. My comedian companion quipped, "It's so hot today that I just saw a dog chasing a cat - and they were both walking!"

A record Del Mar Racetrack crowd of 44,181 had turned out to see the great Cigar race in the sixth rendition of the Del Mar $1-Million Pacific Classic, to be contested over 1 miles. It was supposed to be Cigar's day, a 1-10 favorite. The assemblage expected Cigar to go thru the field of contenders like Grant went thru Richmond. Cigar was on a 16-straight winning streak, tied with the immortal Citation and Mister Frisky, and he was the odds-on favorite to extend his streak to a new modern day American record (in non-restricted races) of 17 uninterrupted triumphs.

My new book, "Thunder Hooves, History's Greatest Racehorses," (Riders Up, International, 1995) had just gone national and many letters poured in about Cigar. The great syndicated writer, Don Freeman, interviewed me for his column (The San Diego-Union Tribune, January 22, 1996), and he, too, asked about the horse on the brink of immortality. It was evident that Cigar Fever had come to roost.

Prior to the big race day, I remember the media frenzy, with helicopters giving overhead reports of Cigar's procession en route to the track. On I-5, Cigar's van was accompanied by a phalanx of highway patrol cars escorting him towards Del Mar. Like a rock star, the prodigious racehorse and his entourage were reported "live" on both radio and television as they proceeded to his barn.

It was now showtime, and at the track, I spotted a man with his young daughter, making their way in the hot sun. He was laboring under a backpack and juggling a variety of carry-on items that appeared to be physically taxing him. His daughter, who was perhaps nine or ten years of age, was full of excitement that the sweltering sun was unable to compromise. I could hear her yelling, "Daddy, Daddy - we're going to see Cigar!!"

The place was packed and the man stood, weary, and staring at the long, serpentine line of people waiting to purchase any reserved ticket seat cancellations. The line was not moving. He stood still. His daughter, animated and bubbling-over with enthusiasm, seemed a blur. Her carbonated antics contrasted sharply with her Daddy.

I approached him and asked if he had reserved seats. He managed a slight grin that more resembled a grimace. "No," he replied under heavy breathing. "I don't . . . and this place looks like its sold out. There's no place to sit, let alone see the big race." He pointed to his little girl. "It was her idea to come here. She's a big Cigar fan. Talks about him, constantly."

He was right about the reserved seats being sold out. And the crowds along the track railing were so deep as to preclude any decent view of the race.

I asked the little girl if she knew about Cigar. She yelped and jumped up-and-down and told me all about him! She ended by simply saying, "I just LOVE him!"

Reaching into my breast pocket, I removed an envelope and extended it to the man who, by this time, looked like he had just reached the frizzy end of his rope. The small tyke never took her eyes off the envelope in my hand. She had a smile on her face the size of the moon, and her faith seemed to radiate out of her large, bulging eyes as if she had just swallowed the sun, itself.

"Here's two reserved tickets, Grandstand, by the Finish Line," I told him. "They're yours, no charge." The girl's piercing screams were enough to rattle my medulla oblongata. With the ringing in my ears I was sure I would be answering the telephone for a week, even if no one would be calling.

I had the two extra tickets because two people were unable to join us. Their loss was a blessing waiting to happen. Could it have been the hand of providence? A wishful fancy from a little girl, whose innocence and faith seemed to know no bounds? Who knows?

They ended up sitting next to us. But, what was to transpire during the big race, was an un-expected bombshell that would leave the crowd shell-shocked and in utter disbelief. It was to be called one of the biggest upsets in horse-racing records. And it happened, before our collective eyes.

Cigar lost.

Dare and Go, a 40-1 long shot, and the son of Alydar, had managed to toss the overalls into the chowder. The great Cigar Road Show had suddenly come to a screeching halt. The feeling for many was one of great despair. Some 'Cigar Partygoers' were now heard to say unkind things about the horse. Many that were so eager to welcome and cheer him, now seemed eager to desert him. Some within earshot impugned the vanquished two-time Horse of the Year. The little girl sitting next to us remained all smiles; enthralled and bedazzled; and then suddenly, she clapped her hands in delight. Her Father leaned over to us and said, "I don't think she knows he lost."

She quickly responded, "Daddy, I don't care if he lost! I SAW him! Oh Daddy, I just love him so much!"

They both thanked me for the tickets and her little hand found its way into mine. "Thank you so much," she said in her tiny voice. "You made my dream come true! I will never forget this as long as I live!"

The lump in my throat prevented me from replying. I merely smiled back.

As they took their leave, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a lesson to be learned here.

Great moments of insight and truth regarding the human condition sometimes spring up from the most unlikeliest of sources. Like the little girl we all met that warm, sunny afternoon, at the Del Mar Racetrack.

My sister, Debbie, used to always show me a quote from R. B. Cunninghame Graham. He wrote "God forbid that I should go to any heaven where there are no horses." My sister loved horses even more than I, and that's saying a lot. She rode horses. She wrote poems about horses. She always looked forward to attending the Del Mar racing season.

When I hear Crosby singing his patented lyrics each race day, I can't help but feel how his song, like the sirens of ancient mythology, keep beckoning us back, year after year, in a tradition that seems utterly irresistible. It is a charm that echoes from the past. It bespeaks of dreams, and carefree days and halcyon afternoons. Part of us avid race-goers live-on in those hallowed grandstands. Slices of our lives are forever rooted there. It is, in my opinion, the most marvelous track on this Blue Marble. It has been called the Nirvana of Racetracks, and for good reason.

I may see all of this thru rose-tinted lenses, but when I do, I see history, and Americana, and all that is right in this great country of ours. I see people, and families, gathered to frolic and throw caution to the wind. When I reflect upon the sum of these things, I feel, somehow, the better for it. I remember a little girl, with her Daddy, who came to see a wondrous horse. And I get stardust in my eyes.

Frederick Gomez

About the Author: Frederick Gomez is a distinguished writer, having had features published in national and international publications. He reports on a variety subjects, ranging from academic pieces on Thomas Jefferson, to critiques on television reporting, to investigative articles on animal abuse allegations at zoos and wild animal parks.

From San Diego, to Las Vegas, to London's BBC television studios, Mr. Gomez has traveled much of the planet and reported on a variety of events.

Horse racing has been a lifelong passion for Gomez, as is clear from this article. He has a sense of, and clearly enjoys, the history of "the sport of Kings." No word yet on how successful he's been at the pari-mutuel window.

One guesses he's done well.

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