Like almost anything else in the world, horse racing is way better with an ocean view. And since Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is the only oceanside racetrack in the country — and possibly the world — it’s quickly become an industry favorite. Need proof? The most illustrious event in horse racing, the Breeders’ Cup, has been hosted at Del Mar’s track twice before, and will be held there for a third time in 2024. The fact that this track has a historic Hollywood past, and was the literal birthplace of the “photo finish,” doesn’t hurt either.
Joe Harper, the CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club since 1990, points to the track’s “casual ambience” as part of the reason for its recent resurgence in popularity.
“There might be some water around other racetracks in the country, but it certainly isn’t as beautiful as it is here,” Harper tells InsideHook. “This is a resort town, and when you have a popular resort and a racetrack in the middle of it, well, our attendance has been very good. It’s more a party atmosphere than a serious racetrack, and that’s really been our saving grace.”
Though you don’t have to be on-site at the track to place a bet on the races, a revamp of the stadium and the grounds in the ’90s created contemporary facilities that are even more appealing for visitors.
Experts and true racing enthusiasts flock to the track, especially during the short summer season, which runs this year through mid-September — and then picks up again later in the fall, from November 10 to December 3. Those who just want to try something new, or knock back a few drinks in the sun, are just as welcome as the betting connoisseurs. And since San Diego is only a two-hour drive down from Los Angeles, getting in on a day at this oceanside track is a fairly easy proposition.
The rich history of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club demonstrates more of a connection to Los Angeles than San Diego. Originally founded back in 1937 by William Quigley and Bing Crosby himself, Crosby brought other Hollywood stars to the races with him, which in turn attracted even more guests, high profile and otherwise, to the track. Now celebrating its 84th season, a big part of the track’s appeal is still rooted in its historic nature. Harper notes “there’s something about Del Mar, with the sea breeze. It’s a city that really works well for high-end guests as well as just your average guy.” General admission to the track starts at an affordable $8, but climbs much higher for better seats, private suites and access to the prestigious members-only Turf Club.
Along with celebrity cred, Crosby actually brought an influx of technology to the stadium, too, tapping the inventor of the photo finish to make a special camera to help determine close calls on the track. “Bing Crosby hired the inventor of photo finish technology to develop a specific camera for Del Mar before the track opened in 1937 to determine winning horses in close races,” Harper says. “Soon after Del Mar opened, racetracks across the country got their own photo finish cameras, and it’s been in practice ever since in horse racing and many other sports.”
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Old photos of stars like Ava Gardner decorate the walls of the stadium, but Harper himself has been around long enough to remember seeing some other living legends walking these halls. “Tradition is a good marketing tool,” he says with a laugh. “We still play Bing Crosby’s ‘Where the Turf Meets the Surf’ song before and after race days. The pictures around the place are of old stars like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and all those people who were around in the ’30s and ’40s who came here. Laurel and Hardy used to come. There was a time when you could come out here, even in my time, and see Desi and Lucy at the races. A lot of other people from Hollywood would come down to visit.”
Celebrities still make the rounds at this particular track. Contemporary stars like Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were recently at the track in partnership with their Dos Hombres mezcal. Drew Brees is a common fixture, and Jury Duty star Ronald Gladden attended opening day this year.
So, for anyone who thinks a day at this historic race track sounds like a great way to spend a late summer weekend, here are a few more tips from Harper on how first-time visitors can make the most of the day.
Call ahead for tables ticket availability
“Call first. You can go to our website, and reserve tables, and that type of thing. There’s lots of restaurants and bars and fun things to do. If you’ve never been to the races before, it’s a good place to start.”
Secure your betting intel
“There’s a lot of places out there where you can get opinions on who is going to win the races — [tip] sheets and the newspapers, and things like that. You can go onto our site and get some of that information, too. That’s always good for making a smarter bet.”
Come ready for a party atmosphere
“Come and have fun! It’s a party, and if you’re here on the weekend, there’s usually some things going on. It’s still a place to be. People who would never go to another racetrack come to Del Mar for the party atmosphere. And we deal with that with different events, wine tasting and beer days, things like that. It draws the people who aren’t classified as hardcore racetrackers, but they like to come out, party and watch the pretty horses.”
What to wear to the races?
“All the press that we do get ends up being about fashion. It’s a party. You look at Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, it’s kind of like that. It’s fun…people are all dressed up. That seems to carry through with most of the meets, especially on the weekends.”
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