It often became a loose-jointed, impromptu variety show, with guests from the audience invited onstage to perform. Mickey Rooney would tap-dance. Or Bob Hope would tell jokes and needle his old friend Bing: "Holy smoke! There's the laughin' loser." Or Hoagy Carmichael would end up playing the piano, Star Dust and other sweet things. Or Danny Kaye would mug and dance. Or Joe Frisco, the softly stuttering comic, would crack his racetrack one-liners, most of which played on his reputation as an inveterate loser: "I came by the racetrack today but it was closed, so I just sh-shoved the money under the door." Or Durante would get up and sing Inka Dinka Doo, break up a piano and close with the melancholy refrain, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."
Crosby may have helped found Del Mar Racetrack, but those two beloved comedians Durante and Frisco remain the enduring spirits of the place. The only handicapper worse than Frisco was Durante, who had a bulletin board in his New York dressing room on which he hung charts showing the bets he had made that day with bookies. "If he lost, the bookies would give him back 50 percent," says his widow, Margie, "so he could keep betting." On some Del Mar days, if enough shifties got his ear, Durante would end up with a bet on practically every horse in each race. At the end of his longest afternoons, as a gag, he would leave the track with his pants pockets turned inside out and flopping at his sides.
Durante died in 1980, but Margie can see him yet: "I picture him walking through the clubhouse, mumbling to himself and going to the windows, and all the touts walking up to him and giving him a horse and him saying, 'Are you sure that's gonna win?' I see him fishing in the ocean. I think he taught every kid on the beach how to fish. One of the little kids called the ocean 'Uncle Jimmy's pool.' "
At times, after the seventh race, Durante would drive to the hill overlooking the backstretch fence, facing the grandstand, and sit alone to watch the eighth. "And he would wave to me," Margie says.
Frisco was a lovable wanderer who addressed everyone as "My good man" and whose various humiliations at the Del Mar windows became the fabric of his comic legend. A parlay player, always plowing his winnings onto a horse in the next race, he often lost spectacularly, but he turned his misadventures into an endless stage routine. When a horse he kept betting on persisted in making a right turn to the outside fence, Frisco suggested to his trainer that he insert some lead in beast's left ear to keep him straight.
"That's an interesting idea, Joe," the trainer replied, "but how do you get the lead in there?"
"With a g-goddam gun," said Frisco.
No one ever knew when or where Frisco might turn up, and he was forever looking for a lift to and from the racetrack. Asked how he had done at the races, Joe would say, "I had a great day. I got a r-ride home." Baedeker was selling his tip sheet in front of the Del Mar gate one morning when a laundry truck pulled up. "There's a guy in the back who wants to see you," said the driver. Baedeker peeked inside the open back door and there was Frisco, sitting on a pile of dirty laundry and smoking a cigar. Climbing from the truck, Frisco straightened himself, flicked his cigar and asked, "What do you like today, my g-good man?"
Summer after summer, even after Crosby sold his stock in the track in 1946, an unending parade of the most familiar faces in America showed up at the "will call" booth in the clubhouse of Del Mar. There were W.C. Fields and Al Jolson, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner and Dorothy Lamour, George Raft and Red Skelton, Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, Don Ameche and George Jessel, Elizabeth Taylor and Paulette Goddard, Louis B. Mayer and Cecil B. deMille. And, of course, all the brothers, from Ritz to Marx to Karamazov. The stream of swells became so unremitting that turf writers, ensconced in the aerie of the press box, used to bet on how long it would take a celebrity, navigating through the crush of back-slappers and autograph seekers, to make his way from a ceremonial appearance in the winner's circle back to his box seat. The beloved former heavyweight champion of the world Jack Dempsey set the endurance record for the distance: no less than 30 minutes.
For the children of the owners and the trainers, spending summers at Del Mar was like growing up on some vast seaside movie lot. Trainer Gary Jones, the son of a horseman, remembers the morning when he and a cousin threw their lines into the water off the beach at 23rd Street. All at once, like a mermaid emerging from the deep, Betty Grable came walking unevenly toward them out of the ocean, soaking wet but with all her clothes on. "I don't know what she was doing there, but she had this white blouse on," says Jones, "and it looked like she had been in a wet T-shirt contest, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, jeez, look at that.' I was 14! What a way to grow up. Only at Del Mar."