On Track With Johnny D: Old Home Week

Just flew home from Del Mar…and boy, are my arms tired. Rimshot!!! But seriously, folks. I just spent five days Where the Turf Meets the Surf and, I gotta tell ya, it’s Cool as Ever.

Know any other marketing slogans I can squeeze into this piece?

During my stay the weather was clear, sunny and humid. How humid was it? Glad you asked. It was so humid the locals were sweating. And those gorgeous Del Martians don’t do ‘sweat.’ In fact, there’s a sign at the beach entrance that reads: No Shvitzing! If it wasn’t for a refreshing Pacific breeze I think one of them would have melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. To an East Coast guy, Del Mar-humidity is lemonade in the shade. Comfortable. Complain to me when the mercury hits 95 and the humidity beats it by five lengths!

It was great to see so many old friends…and I do mean old. I don’t get it. 40 years ago, when we first met, they were young. 15 years ago, when I left California, they were my age. Now, they’re way older than me. What happened?

I recognized some of them and most were happy to see me. One or two acted as if I owed them money. What do they know, they’re old? Memory issues, I suppose. Anyway, even if I had borrowed from them, it doesn’t matter now. The statute of limitations has expired. Plus, as I explained to the most persistent, one shouldn’t cling to the past. It’s not healthy, especially for old people. Bygones should be bygones.

Fortunately, during this trip I did not require additional financing. I’ve learned a thing or two about how to approach track visits during old home week. The key for me is to temper my pari-mutuel enthusiasm. Oh, I still wager on the races—abstinence is a non-starter–but I don’t play nearly as strongly as when wagering from home. Exceptions to the rule are West Coast-based Breeders’ Cups, because I do most of the work before travelling. On normal SoCal sojourns there are just too many distractions. Don’t get me wrong. I love each and every one of them—visiting the sun-splashed paddock, chatting with friends, consuming adult beverages, observing beautiful people, singing along with Bing etc., but it interferes with my horseplay.

Del Mar boasts the most attractive clientele of any racetrack in the world. If you disagree it’s only because you’ve never been. Seriously, if there’s better, anywhere, please enlighten me. And if you’re about to nominate the Keeneland faithful, don’t bother. While they rank as the second-most attractive racing crowd in the US, a ‘win’ photo isn’t required. Also, if you go racing at Keeneland and then venture into the Lexington-area night in search of those same beautiful people, you won’t find them. Why? I don’t know, but you won’t find them. I’ve looked.

Since I’m now a Del Mar veteran living on the East Coast, I’m often asked to compare Del Mar to Saratoga. My stock answer is that they’re both fantastic! Ginger or Mary Ann? Why choose? They’re both stuck on the island. I absolutely love Del Mar and visit whenever I can. Same can be said of the Spa. Each year my pal Will and I ship north for Travers week, and each year, as soon as we’re in the car headed home, we look forward to the following season.

Saratoga racing is better than what’s offered at Del Mar. No argument. Del Mar, humidity included, has better weather, although those powerful Spa pop-up thunderstorms are entertaining. On track food and drink? Nod to ‘Toga. They boast Hattie’s, Shake Shack and a pizza spot whose name escapes me, but I know where it’s located. Must admit I love the Mexican influence at Del Mar, but food choices are limited. Insert a giant asterisk here, because, while the Spa begins around lunchtime at 1 pm, Del Mar kicks off an hour later at 2 pm, which is too late for lunch and too early for dinner. Del Mar’s Four O’ Clock Friday post doesn’t stimulate the appetite either, but it does give Happy Hour an invigorating kick-start!

One glaring difference between the two emporiums surrounds saddling paddocks. At the spa, horses stand beneath tall, ancient trees and parade around an enclosure that features patrons in dresses, hats, jackets and ties. Del Mar’s paddock openly basks in California sunshine and welcomes visitors in shorts, sundresses and flip-flops. A security guard at the entrance politely points qualified individuals toward a nearby yellow trash can that accepts un-guzzled alcoholic liquids.

Saratoga’s backyard area is awesome. I’ve never participated in the daily ‘Running of the Picnickers,’ that begins when gates open and fans rush to claim prime spots, but I’ve watched it on video. I’ve also marveled at the queue of table-seekers gathered outside track gates at sunrise on Travers day. It’s a unique and impressive sight.

Del Mar boasts a unique experience, too. It’s called opening day, and it ranks among America’s greatest sporting events! Add it to your bucket list. It’s remains on mine and I’ve already experienced about 35 of them. Arrive early, grab a cool beverage and find a seat with an unobstructed view of an admission gate—Turf Club, Clubhouse, Grandstand, it doesn’t matter. From there you will enjoy an incredible parade of beautiful people—tanned, fit and dressed to impress. Traditionally, the afternoon’s first race is a one-mile event, so horses line up in front of the grandstand. As each runner is loaded into the gate, the crowd buzzes with increased anticipation. Announcer Trevor Denman dispatches the field with an “Away they go!” and the crowd roars with delight. Why not? So far, everyone’s ‘even’ for the meet!

Sadly, I can’t recall my first visit to Del Mar. I know it was sometime in the 70’s and things were a lot different. Shoe, Laffit, Charlie, Bobby, Willard, Mel and Warren won races. The charming, old grandstand was in place and the hills across from the track barn area were completely bare—not a condo in sight. A drive-in movie theater inhabited roughly the space now occupied by Red Tracton’s, Pamplemousse and Fish Market.

During my recent trip I marveled at the incredible development of this formerly quiet town. I briefly was tempted to kick myself solidly for not getting in on the ground floor and investing in Del Mar property.

And then I remembered…back then I didn’t have any money!

I suppose I could have borrowed from friends.

Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: Old Home Week

On Track with Johnny D |

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