Seeing him coming, Frisco nonchalantly held out a couple of $100 bills, flicked his cigar, and said, "Here, my good man, sing us a few b-b-bars of Melancholy Baby." Local clockers still say that Crosby laughed longer that day than it took Dempsey to get back to his seat.
In all 43 days of racing at Del Mar, though, there was no winner's circle scene that played so long on the chimes of memory as the one that followed the 43rd running of the $200,000 Del Mar Futurity, a one-mile race for 2-year-olds, on Sept. 12, closing day. Few men in America have sunk more money into the game of racing than John Mabee, a San Diego supermarket and insurance tycoon who has been the guiding hand behind Del Mar's growth over the last decade. Until last year—when he retired as president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which operates the track—Mabee oversaw the track's $80 million program to rebuild, beginning this year, the aging clubhouse and grandstand and the paddock out back. Mabee entered the business as an owner in 1957, and today he presides over a thoroughbred colossus that includes a 560-acre California farm and 540 horses—110 in training, 170 broodmares, 125 foals, 95 yearlings, 40 lay-ups. He sends his mares to his own stallions and to some of the fanciest pedigrees in Kentucky: Mr. Prospector, Nijinsky II, Seattle Slew.
Until last summer, Mabee had never been a leading owner at Del Mar, his hometown track, and had never won a major stakes there, much less a Futurity. "It's a race I've always wanted to win," he said. He certainly had the big gun last year in Best Pal, a game, consistent gelding that Mabee himself bred at home. Not only that, but two days before the running of the Futurity, Mabee had finally reached a place at Del Mar that he had been aiming at for years. By the end of the third race, in which his Bel's Starlet rushed to victory, Mabee's horses had won more money in a single season at Del Mar, $412,434, than those of any owner in the track's history. All Mabee lacked was a Del Mar Futurity victory to polish the trophy.
It was easier than he had ever imagined. Lying second off the early pace, with Pat Valenzuela sitting as he pleased, Best Pal galloped to the lead down the backside, opened two lengths around the turn and won easily by 3½ lengths. "Fantastic!" Mabee cried.
Just then, Valenzuela pulled the colt to a halt in front of the circle, spotted Mabee and blurted out: "You've got yourself a Kentucky Derby horse, Mr. Mabee!"
Mabee waved to him. "That's a long, long way off, Pat," he said.
Of course, Valenzuela was right. Best Pal did get to the Kentucky Derby this year, a very solid 6-1 shot, but he simply wasn't enough Derby horse. He made a desperate final run at Churchill Downs, only to come in second, 1¾ lengths short of Strike the Gold. Ah, but the dreaming began at Del Mar, and that is what the game's about.
That and the conjuring of old, pleasant ghosts. Del Mar has had its share of those, to be sure, certainly more than most old haunts in this game. Frisco sitting in a laundry truck. Crosby singing a couple of bars of Melancholy Baby. And Jimmy waving to Margie from the hill.