DEL MAR - At the end of another racing day, once the horses have been stabled and watered and the track wiped clean of hoofprints, once the seersucker-suited and broad-brimmed-hat set have sped away in their Beemers, once the gnarled rail birds have bitten down hard on the soggy, molar-indented stubs of stogies and scuttled off, that is when the gulls descend.
They come in low off the coast in the gathering dusk, circling the box seats. Discarded betting tickets flutter in the soft ocean breeze, as adrift as so many dreams unfulfilled, but the gulls pay them no mind. They swoop down and snap up the sure bet, the proven winner - the detritus they call dinner.
It may resemble a Hitchcockian scene, this beating of white wings amid the palm tree-dotted turf and red-tiled Mission architecture, but it's actually more poignant than menacing.
The Track That Bing Built, meaning crooner and horse- racing maven Bing Crosby, 75 years ago almost seems to sigh in repose, thankful for the overnight respite and girding itself for the next day's cycle of winners and losers, high rollers and two-buck bettors, swells and suburbanites, all pouring through the turnstiles for a day at the races.
For eight weeks each summer, Hollywood migrates south about 100 miles to play the ponies where, to invoke Bing's warbling baritone, "the turf meets the surf."
And while true celebrities are scarce now at the track - unlike the days of yore when power couples such as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, J. Edgar Hoover and his "assistant" Clyde Tolson, and Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner came to play - the rich, the wannabe rich and tourists who couldn't tell a mare from a mule all flock here like those gulls that just can't stay away.
They dress the part, too, be it Gatsbyish retro chic, mob-moll glamour puss or rogue Runyonesque street tough. There seems to be more seersucker and bow ties on display than in the antebellum South, more millinery marvels than at a royal wedding. People pose and partake at no less than five veranda restaurants and bars, not counting the private, posh Turf Club.
"It becomes kind of our version of celebrity, a little slice of Beverly Hills for the summer," said Adam Halbridge, a racing fan whose company built the mobile app for the track. "I like the classiness, the nostalgia of betting on the ponies. It's a lifestyle."
Yet, for all its perceived glitz, for all its see-and-be-seen cachet, this remains at its core a racetrack, where 1,300-pound quadrupeds with 112-pound silk-clad men and women on top thunder around a track while people wager vast sums on which equine athlete will finish fastest.
Which might make you think would inevitably lead to a clash of cultures, as racing dilettantes who play dress-up and come for "the experience" rub elbows at the rail with hard-core bettors here for the payday. Indeed, those for whom gambling is an avid pastime or, yes, a profession form a stark contrast to those who merely piddle away $2 bets while waiting for the post-race weekend concert (Cake played two weeks ago; Michael Franti two nights ago) or to see the Wiener Dog races, ogle the Miss Cougar Del Mar contestants or get on-site spa treatments and mani-pedis.
That these two factions can co-exist - it's more a mingling than a clash - is a testament to Del Mar's inclusive vibe. For several years now, Del Mar has boasted the highest daily attendance figures (more than 16,000 on average) of any horseracing track in the state.
"Del Mar is really quite different from other tracks," said Bob Lovka, a Del Mar staff handicapper. "It's a resort playground, and we pride ourselves on people having a good time."
Tres track chic
He preened near the paddock, the very definition of dapper. Yet, he apologized that he wasn't more GQ mag ready.
"I'm a little slovenly today," Mark Henry said. "I based my dress on comfort today."
Race-track casual for Henry: His celedon (that's a pale green, you fashion heathens) shirt smartly offset his navy-and-silver diamond tie and blue pinstriped vest, upon which the chain of his pocket watch glinted in the sun. His lucite-clear spectacles brought out the deep sienna of his Orange County-earned tan. His white trousers bore creases as sharp as Exacto blades.
"I see it as a karma thing, dressing up," Henry said. "The horses can recognize the fact that we're playing the part of spectators."
"It's true," added his sister Christy Henry, draped in a clingy black-and-yellow flower-print dress and off-the-face floppy black straw hat. "The horses can sense that."
The Henry siblings and two friends had taken the train down from the O.C. They clutched drinks, not rolled-up Daily Racing Forms. As Christy Henry said, "It's an outing. I'll spend, like, $2 or something on a horse, but ..."
"But this is an adult theme park, really," Mark Henry said. "There's alcohol, there's food, there's money, there's the (thrill) of winning. But if you lose, you still enjoy yourself. Even if you lose, you feel richer. If you're losing throwing balls at milk bottles, it doesn't feel the same. Racing's more classy."
At times, roaming the Del Mar grounds, a visitor looks down thinking there must be a red carpet rolled out, given the array of Beautiful People in pumps strutting about.
The joint was positively brimming with broad-brim Derby hats on the ladies, straw fedoras and the occasional Panama hat on the gents. An interviewer felt the urge to ask people the vacuous question, "Who are you wearing?"
It just seemed appropriate.
But not all the dolled-up Barbies and Kens are high-society types. For some working stiffs, a Del Mar weekend qualifies as a special occasion. Hence, the need to look spiffy.
Couple Zach Kuglen and Hannah Pinkington went way retro, Kuglen donning a tweed newsboy cap, blue button-down and suspenders holding up his gray flannel pants, and Pinkington opting for a blue dress with plunging neckline and a sombrero-sized white Derby hat that struck Kuglen in the face one time when she turned abruptly.
"I worked here at Del Mar two years ago, busing tables at the Red Star Café," Pinkington said. "I never really got to see the actual races. So I figured, if I'm going to go, I'm going to look the way that people used to. The atmosphere is the best part."
The vast majority of women in attendance - and, strictly from ocular proof, it seemed slightly less than half the 16,762 on hand - dressed to the nines.
"Women, naturally, want an event to get dressed up for," said Robyn Halbridge of Solana Beach. "How often do you get a chance to wear a hat?"
Lest one come away thinking women grace Del Mar simply to be fashionable, Linda Blanda of Del Mar smashed the assumption. Dressed in a white flowered- print dress and matching Derby hat, she leaned on the rail of the paddock before the third race eyeing the parade of horses.
"I like the 3 (horse)," she said, her hat brim nodding at Fighting Hussar, a 2-year-old that entered the race at 4-to-1 odds, well behind favorite the Humancomplaint. "He looks confident and fit. That's how I often pick them, by how they look (in the paddock)."
And about her hat?
"Yeah, there's a big tradition of hats at Del Mar," she said. "I just wear mine for sun protection."
Fighting Hussar, by the way, won by a length and a half.
A sure thing? Uh, no
Post time for the fifth race fast approaching, Frank Sammarino bounded up the steps and caught up with his two buddies, settling in to the rail next to the box seats in the clubhouse section.
"It has to win," he said. "The 7 horse. Has. To. Win. I'm telling you, it's gonna win."
Bettors thought otherwise. The overhelming favorite in this race for maiden (non-winning) 2-year-olds was Rolling Fog, trained by three-time Kentucky Derby-winner Bob Baffert and ridden by Rafael Bejarano, one of the nation's top jockeys.
"The 7's gonna win," Sammarino repeated to his buddies. "Look at the past performance. They put him in a stakes race last time out. They do that, they gotta like him."
The 7 horse, Sammarino's pick, was Dirty Swagg, going off at 4-to-1 to Rolling Fog's even money. As track announcer Trevor Denman intoned with rounded vowels and his dignified South African lilt, "And away they go," Rolling Fog went. He took the lead on the back stretch and won going away. Dirty Swagg finished fifth, never in contention.
Afterward, shrugging, Sammarino was unbowed.
"The fact they put (Dirty Swagg) in a graded stakes race last time out against winners, OK, that lets you know they think they've got a good horse, right?," he said. "Obviously, that shows how much I know."
Then he let out a self- deprecatory cackle. Sammarino and his friends came from Doylestown, Pa., for a long boys-weekend-out at Del Mar. He'll be happy to get back to the East Coast at Saratoga, where, he said, the tracks run more consistently to past-performance form.
"Del Mar is damn difficult to handicap, I tell you," he said.
No need to tell that to Mike Davis, a Del Mar regular. Hunched over his racing form with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar, he scribbled some numbers, headed to the betting machines, came back clutching tickets. He stood in 17 Hands, a bar on the track's ground floor that features monitors showing races from Arlington (in Illinois), Saratoga (New York) and Santa Rosa.
In this race, he was betting on the favorite, Low Gear Power. Davis remained silent as Low Gear Power was dead last at the quarter pole, still last in the back stretch.
"My 4 horse is in the back?" he lamented. "What the ...? That's so Del Mar: top horse in the back."
Then, the horse perked up, and so did Davis.
"Do it! Do it!" he yelled as the horses came for home. Low Gear didn't do it, finishing fourth. "(Bleeping) Del Mar," Davis grumbled.
Davis, like frustrated bettors everywhere, was convinced something's not right at Del Mar. Maybe, he speculated, it's the synthetic Polytrack put in a few years ago, replacing dirt. Maybe it's collusion among too-friendly jockeys.
He admitted he has no proof; he was just blowing off steam.
"In my handicapping, I'm trying to establish a pattern with the tracks," he said. "But with Del Mar, there's nothing. It's, like, so random. Everybody complains about it. Everybody. The horses that really should win, according to their history, they don't do well at all."
Is Davis going to quit wagering at Del Mar?
"No, this is a great place."
Day at the office
Lurking in the crossover area between the paddock and the track, the man with the beige suit and shiny bald head paced nervously before the start of the third race.
No bettor, he. He had much more at stake.
To guys like him, a day at Del Mar is work, not some pleasant afternoon.
This nervous man was Peter Miller, trainer of the favorite in the third race, Snackable. As the horses entered the starting gate, Miller turned back to his wife, Lani, cradling their infant son, Jacob, in a Snugli, and kissed both on the forehead.
Then he stepped forward, away from his family. He watched the short (5 furlong) race alone as it flashed on the towering big screen in the infield. At the three-eights pole, as Snackable led by a head, Martin started juddering, side to side, urging his horse from afar. Then, in the stretch, as Snackable opened up a 4-length lead, Miller bounded forward, repeatedly slapping the outside of his left thigh with an imaginary whip.
By the time Snackable won, Miller was three-quarters of the way to the winner's circle, where he gently slapped Snackable on the left hip and then exchanged fist-bumps with jockey Edwin Maldonado.
Then he embraced Lani, who, it should be noted, was not wearing a hat. But his son had on a black-and-white checkered newsboy cap.
So sporty. So Del Mar.
DEL MAR RACING
Del Mar's thoroughbred horseracing meet continues until Sept. 5. Racing is Wednesday-Sunday, starting at 2 p.m. (except Fridays, when it starts at 4 p.m.). Cost is $10 clubhouse admission; $6 stretch admission. Parking is $10. Del Mar offers a day camp for ages 5-12, for $24.
For more information, call (858) 755-1141 or go to www.dmtc.com.
DEL MAR SANS HORSES
It is possible to have an enjoyable weekend in Del Mar without stepping foot at the racetrack. Suggestions:
Shopping: Del Mar's main drag is Camino Del Mar, running from 15th to 12th streets. It's lined with upscale boutiques such as Peaches En Regalia (www.peachesenregalia.com ) and White House/Black Market (whiteandblack.com). As a nod to the beach culture, you can shop at the San Diego Surf Co. (www.SanDiegoSurfCo.com ). One throwback shop is Frustrated Cowboy (frustratedcowboy.com), a Western wear boutique. For your pet: Dexter's Deli Health Food for Dogs and Cats (dextersdeli.com). For your Derby hat needs, there is Las Mas boutique (202 15th Street).
Dining: Sunday brunch is popular in the coastal town. Among the many choices: Americana (www.americanarestaurant.com), Zel's (zelsdelmar.com) and the Stratford Court Cafe (www.stratfordcourt-cafe.com ). Your best bet for Mexican food is in nearby Solana Beach, at Fidel's Little Mexico (fidelslittlemexico.com).
Outdoors: Del Mar boasts several miles of beach area, including the cove just off Via de la Valle with beach volleyball courts. For hiking, go to Torrey Pines State Reserve (www.torreypine.org) or Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve (penasquitos.org).
- Sam McManis