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A LITTLE BIT OF HEAVEN
William Nack
July 15, 1991
CALIFORNIA'S DEL MAR RACETRACK HAS LONG BEEN A STAR-STUDDED PARADISE FOR HORSEPLAYERS
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July 15, 1991

A Little Bit Of Heaven

CALIFORNIA'S DEL MAR RACETRACK HAS LONG BEEN A STAR-STUDDED PARADISE FOR HORSEPLAYERS

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The kids gamboled all day at the beach and track, playing games in the hot sand, draping themselves over the fence to watch the races. Trainer Eddie Gregson, 52, the grandson of a racehorse owner, began vacationing at Del Mar when he was an infant. "The kids would have softball games on the beach with Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Harry James and Mickey Rooney," Gregson says. "Betty Grable was everybody's mascot. Rooney was the most gung-ho of all. Everybody knew everybody. It was all very folksy."

Jones, 47, remembers his childhood around Del Mar as Twain must have remembered his in Hannibal, Mo.: as a perpetual adventure in which the days chased one another like puppies chasing sticks. The Jones family lived every summer near a 100-cabin campsite called Seaside Village, hard by the surf of Solana Beach. "Seaside Village was like a paradise for kids," Jones says. "It was loaded with racetrackers, and the little kids of racetrackers, and you knew everyone. You'd go surfing, hiking, fishing. There were caves all along there, and we kids would go searching in them. All day long! At night, everyone came out and lit bonfires and we'd have a big party on the beach, all night long. We'd have 80 kids playing a huge game of hide-and-go-seek. You could walk from bonfire to bonfire. Can you imagine what that was like for a kid? Barbecues every night? Singing. Partying. Fires blazing."

Come morning, Jones would be back at the beach to watch the horses racing by. For years, trainers regularly took their horses from the barns to the ocean to let them swim in the healing salt water or roll in the sand or work out on the firm ribbon of beach lapped by the waves. Bad-legged horses thrived on Del Mar's beaches. "It was the ideal way to breeze a horse," says Gregson, "especially if he had a bowed tendon. There was perfect footing with a lot of bounce to it, and they were running in a straight line, so there was no stress from making turns."

The exercise was not without its perils. A fine colt named Bagdad, spooked by a passing train as he walked under the trestle, leaped for cover into a nearby lagoon and started thrashing helplessly around. Then his rider jumped off, though he couldn't swim, and he started thrashing around with the horse. So trainer Joe Dunn jumped in after them, and in all the confusion, he later recalled, "I thought I was gonna drown. All I could think of was calling his owner and saying, 'I'm sorry, sir, but Bagdad drowned this morning.' " Somehow all three found shore.

Just because a horse made it under the trestle, however, didn't necessarily mean it got back to the barn. "You had to be careful swimmin' them in the ocean," recalled retired jockey Bill Shoemaker. "Careful not to let them get away from you. They'd swim out there and keep going. You had to turn them around. One got lost once. He got away from his boy and took off swimming and just kept going. Nobody ever saw him again."

In the track's early decades, for all this salubrious galloping and swimming, no one ever confused the horses at Del Mar with those at Saratoga, where Hall of Fame cracks such as Man o' War, Native Dancer and Secretariat never swam a lick. But things have gotten better. In fact, the class of horses at Del Mar has improved dramatically over the years, rising as the track grew fat financially. With purses based on a percentage of the handle, pots have lately swelled to the point where they are among the highest in the nation. Not that old Del Mar, country and western as it was, didn't have its moments as a battleground for the dueling banjos of the breed.

Old-timers such as racetrackers Charlie Whittingham and Sonny Greenberg still recall with relish the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 12, 1938, when the immortal Seabiscuit, owned by Charles S. Howard, did battle with an Argentine-bred flyer named Ligaroti, owned by Crosby and Howard's son, Lindsay. With Crosby himself involved, a $25,000 winner's pot and the rivalry between old man Howard and his son—in a side bet, Charles laid $15,000 on Seabiscuit to Lindsay's $5,000 on Ligaroti—the race became the event of the year in American racing, a Southern California happening. More than 20,000 souls crammed into the clubhouse and grandstand. All sorts of Hollywood stuntmen and extras, pals of Bing's, flocked in to see the show, many arriving on the last train to the races out of L.A.

By then the arrival of that iron monster, Santa Fe's "Racetrack Special," was a betting event in itself. Clanging its bells, spouting steam, its whistle blasting, the train would announce its coming. When it was late it arrived to thunderous cheers, for tradition held that the races could not begin until the special had unloaded its passengers and given them a chance to play the first race. So there was always a frantic scurrying of fresh customers from the depot to the windows, with the Santa Fe trainmen not far behind. "The engineer and brakeman and the others were carrying bets for the railroad workers up in L.A.," says Baedeker.

On the day of the Seabiscuit-Ligaroti match race, the clubhouse was festooned with signs. "There were rooting sections for both horses," says Greenberg. No one knew quite what to expect, what with the mighty Seabiscuit, carrying 130 pounds, facing this ballyhooed bay from the Pampas, under 115 pounds, over 1⅛ miles. "Oh, Christ!" recalls Greenberg. "It was the most fantastic match race in history. Start to finish." George (the Iceman) Woolf sent Seabiscuit sailing to the lead out of the gate, but by the time they had slanted off the first turn, jockey Noel (Spec) Richardson had driven Ligaroti to Seabiscuit's throat. So they stayed, nearly head and head, the whole way around, in what turned out to be one of the damnedest, daringest, hairiest struggles in the history of the American turf.

"The jockeys were beating the crap out of each other all the way," recalls Whittingham, who was Richardson's agent at the time. "Spec had a hold of Seabiscuit's saddle!"

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