A day at the racetrack that Bing Crosby built

By Melissa Bell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010; 2:00 PM

A gunshot cracks. "And away they go!" growls the announcer. Dust kicks up as seven solid forms of muscle hit the track. "Go, go, go!" starts the murmur in the stands, building to a roar as the horses turn into the last curve. "Go, go, go!" Then a gasp. No. 8 by a nose! Cheers drown out groans. Losing betting slips fall to the ground like confetti as others are thrust skyward in victory. "I won!"

It's another good day at the races.

And I don't mean a place full of bleary-eyed men at a betting station in some dilapidated building.

This is the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, nestled beside the Pacific Ocean, right off the famous coastal Highway 101 just north of San Diego. It's a Mediterranean-style, red-tile-roofed stadium, six stories high, overlooking a pristine oval track where palm trees and small lakes dot the infield. It's one of the few horse tracks in the United States where attendance grows each year, that doesn't struggle to keep guests coming back the way many other racetracks do.

Maybe that's because this is the track that Bing Crosby built, back in 1937. It's linen tablecloths, champagne flutes and the sleek power of thoroughbreds. Picture a seven-week-long West Coast Kentucky Derby, with bigger bosoms, brighter tans and margaritas instead of mint juleps.

Each year, about 40,000 people come for opening-day festivities in July. And almost every year, I'm among them. It helps that my parents live 10 minutes away, but I'm also mad about the races.

Opening day can feel like a marathon of indulgence. A race takes place every half-hour over six hours. The rest of the time is eating, drinking, losing money on the horses and avoiding the outlandish hats that so many women wear. It's wonderful chaos.

This year, I wallowed in the high life with four friends who took the half-hour train trip up from downtown San Diego. From the station, the track is a 15-minute walk along a shady street, or you can catch one of the free buses that run between the two locations.

We arrived to what can only be described as a spectacle. Everyone was dressed as if they were playing a starring role in a Rat Pack movie. A man in a white silk suit and pink sneakers strutted by, followed by a gaggle of blondes. One woman in a rose-patterned dress wore a hat covered entirely in fresh red roses.

The stadium is a maze of patio restaurants and giant floral arrangements. General grandstand seating costs $6. A table for four at the Clubhouse Terrace Restaurant runs about $100, not including food or drinks. Then there's the members-only Turf Club, which men can't enter without a dinner jacket - yes, even on an August day. A season-long membership costs $850, and $60 per guest.

I figure if you're going to do the races, you ought to do them in style. I wanted the glamour of the carpeted floors, the white-jacketed waiters and Bo Derek gliding by in the hallway of the Turf Club. My friends (and my dad) have Turf Club memberships, so we made a beeline for the club's Betty Grable suite.

Racetrack President Joe Harper stopped by our table in a swirl of guests, fiddling with his walkie-talkie. There hadn't been any major security problems so far, he said, although he had gotten wind of "one girl whose skirt was a little high." He grinned. Every skirt is a little high on opening day.

There's a casual swagger about Harper that seems to be a direct throwback to Bing Crosby's style. It's not that surprising to find out that he comes from old Hollywood stock: He's Cecil B. DeMille's grandson, to be exact.

Harper has hung around the racetrack in one guise or another for five decades and took over its management in 1977. Facing devastating drops in attendance rates, he decided in 2001 to stop trying to sell his product - the races - and sell the venue instead. "Come to the concert, and oh, by the way, look at the horses," he said. "You got to wrap your product in a nice package." The marketing strategy seems to have worked. Last year, according to the California Horse Racing Information Board, the track attracted an average of nearly 2,000 more visitors daily than in 2001.

There are old racing purists who disdain the Del Mar track's younger crowd, who come not for the imperfect science of gambling on horses, but for the packages that Harper and his marketing team have created: the Friday night concerts with the likes of Ziggy Marley and Pinback; the side events, such as the much-maligned and hugely successful Miss Cougar contest; and the cocktail party atmosphere of the race days.

As my friends indulged in Del Margaritas, I decided to sample the old-school allure of the track. In Race 3, I went to a betting window, dreams of great riches dancing in my head. I used the age-old strategy for picking a winner: find the horse with the most ridiculous name.

The room went still as the race kicked off. We crowded to the railings. My heart seemed to forget a few beats as my pick, Malusita, rounded the last turn and crossed the finish line in a dead heat with another horse. And then came the pure hedonistic thrill as the winners were announced: Malusita placed! I'm a racing genius! When I finally calmed down, I learned that I'd won two whole dollars.

The day passed in a swirl of conversation, shrimp cocktails and real cocktails. At the end of the final race, a scratchy recording came on, as it does every race day, and everybody stood up as Bing crooned over the emptying stands: "There's a winner in each race and a smile on every face." A few hundred voices, mine included, sang along with the old star: "Where the turf meets the surf at Del Mar."

The sun was just setting over the Pacific. I get a little twinge of nostalgia every time I hear that song. I may even have been a little teary-eyed this time around. But let's just blame that on the Del Margaritas.

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