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"It's a little bit of heaven," said Okuneff. "There's nothing to compare to it. The sunsets, the California hardbodies, the beaches, the restaurants, the weather, the horses. I've been to tracks all over, but none has more joy about it than Del Mar. Can you imagine a more pleasant place to bet money, win or lose? When that gate opens for the first race in front of the grandstand on opening day, there's a roar from the crowd like at a football game."
The place has always had an intoxicating lure to it, and visitors coming to Del Mar for a day have been known to disappear from sight, as if they had stumbled into Brigadoon. Back in 1949, while his wife, Lucille Ball, was making a picture called Fancy Pants with Bob Hope, bandleader Desi Arnaz dropped in for a day of racing and fishing. He never threw a line in the water, but he went to the races for a week and ended up spending most of the summer at the track. Arnaz eventually bought a home along the beach near Del Mar, where he used to serenade beachcombers, the incoming tide and the starfish that washed up in its wake, often to the strains of Babaloo. Arnaz lived two doors from comedian Jimmy Durante and two more from Del Mar regular Robert Strauss, then an emerging power broker in the Democratic party—the Watergate burglars were caught in Strauss's office, among others, at party headquarters in 1972—and today President Bush's ambassador-designate to the Soviet Union.
"They were at the racetrack and partying there all afternoon," recalls Strauss, "and then they'd go home and party all night. Desi would be drinking and he'd get out on his balcony and sing. And Durante, on the beach, would yell back up to him. Tell jokes and yell back and forth. My wife, Helen, and I were part of the audience. They couldn't just play to each other. They had to have a crowd. I loved 'em. Del Mar is a way of life. Once you sec this racecourse and get a feel for this place, it's like a drug. You can't turn it loose. You just relax differently here than you do anyplace else."
So it's no wonder to any of Del Mar's thousands of habitués—to anyone who has heard the wind chimes off the surf or counted the bikinis in the crowd or lolled on the infield grass in the sun, watching the horses bound around the Jimmy Durante Turf Course—that Del Mar has emerged as one of the strongest, most popular thoroughbred race meetings in America. In fact, since Del Mar joined Southern California's intertrack wagering system in 1988—allowing crowds to wager on Del Mar races at 13 satellite betting sites, including Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos in the Los Angeles area—it has been the preeminent betting venue in the land.
By the end of the 1990 meeting, which ran 43 days, from July 25 through Sept. 12, the combined on-track and off-track handle for Del Mar races had reached a record $323 million, or a staggering $7.5 million a day. Nearly $3 million of that was handled on-track, where as many as 26,548 straw-hatted, tie-dyed horseplayers would drag themselves off the beach after a morning dip and hum along with Bing Crosby's scratchy recording of the track's anthem, a ditty piped over the loudspeaker system at the beginning and end of each day:
Where the turf meets the surf
Crosby and actor Pat O'Brien were the forces behind the building of Del Mar in the 1930s, and when the track opened on July 3, 1937, there they were, greeting dubious horseplayers and mingling with the curious tourists who had come down on the train from Los Angeles. Clara Weitzenhoffer, a Del Mar regular who has sat in the same clubhouse box for 30 years, and her parents were among the first arrivals that day. "Bing and Pat were standing by the gate," she says. "They gave us cotton scarves and shook hands with us."
At the time, Del Mar was just a crook in the road between Los Angeles and San Diego, and the track was more of a sprawling country fair than a serious racing and gambling venue. Crosby's presence quickly turned the track into what it is still known as today: "The Saratoga of the West." For years, Del Mar was a summer haunt for Bing and his friends, a kind of saltwater spa, a place where the Hollywood crowd came to play. It was the only racetrack in America where Gary Cooper and Oliver Hardy served as officers of the board. Betty Grable used to show up every summer with her husband, Harry James, the bandleader and trumpet player. They owned a stable of horses, and James loved the betting windows. At night, he and Grable would dine at places like the old Del Mar Hotel, and after dinner she would nudge him and say: "Pops, get out your trumpet."
So Harry would play his magical instrument solo, with only the surf for accompaniment, and the night was begun. "It was beautiful," recalls Bud Baedeker, who sold tip sheets for the races. "The crowd would gather out on the patio and maybe Dan Dailey would dance, and pretty soon 200 people were out there. The show would go on until two in the morning."
Every Saturday night, after the races, Crosby would throw a party in the Turf Club. "Bing would walk through the clubhouse and invite 150 people, hand-pick them," recalls actor Jackie Cooper, a Del Mar regular since he was a boy. "The minute the last race was over, they'd set up the tables. An orchestra played dance music all night, and Bing would sing."