Family Day at the racetrack seemed like an oxymoron to me. When I was a 17-year-old clerk at People’s Drug Store in Fairfax, Virginia, rough looking men with cigarettes hanging from their lips would come in each morning and ask for the Racing Form, and this was my limited knowledge of who goes to the horse races. Beautiful women in stylish hats and well-groomed men in tailored suits were not what I pictured, but after a visit to the races at Del Mar, California, I have a new vision.
Each year the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club brings its stable of steeds to the seaside village of Del Mar Fairgrounds, 20 miles north of San Diego, where resides an impressive track that hosts upwards of 45,000 race enthusiasts on opening day. Known for the slogan, “Where the surf meets the turf,” the park was originally made famous by the likes of old Hollywood stars who frequented the race scene, such as Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Oliver Hardy.
Race season dominates this town from the end of July through Labor Day, with approximately 17,000 visitors each race day, from San Diego and Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and as far away as Arizona and Nevada, coming to try their luck and enjoy the excitement and society of the races. Despite the downturn in the economy, which curtailed some of the races in 2010, the track is back, with record numbers of attendees this year.
Places to Stay, People to See
The race season is an anticipated event and boon for Del Mar and surrounding areas where hotels sell out and the best restaurants are booked weeks in advance. For those coming from out of town, the nearby Park Hyatt Aviara Resort is the Preferred Hotel of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. The luxury resort’s exclusive Turf Club Package includes one-day admission for two into the private Turf Club.
While the members-only Turf Club set make up a large share of attendees — easily spotted by their dress code of suits or jackets for men and daytime dresses or sundresses for women, often adorned with showy wide-brimmed hats – the park caters to all types of people.
Alongside my family as we filed into the park from the dirt parking fields across the street were folks from every walk of life, from families pushing strollers piled with blankets and coolers, to teens with purple hair and random piercings.
Learning the Ropes
As we passed through the Clubhouse Gate, the attendant handed my four-year-old son a Webkinz plush gray toy horse. My partner had just finished telling me that in race lore gray horses are favored to win. This was a good omen. Indeed, for all the children who visited on Family Day and received a free stuffed animal, the day was off to a good start.
Our first venture was to the fenced grassy paddock where the owners and guests show off their horses before the race, or post, begins. This is a chance for spectators to gather around the fence to observe the horses. If the ears are laid back and the horse is spirited, some say he is eager to run and win; others say this means he’s anxious and skittish. It’s anyone’s guess what these horses will do out on the track, and this speculation adds to the excitement.
Once let out of the pen, the horses are led to the starting gate while patrons rush to the cashier windows to make their final wagers. The menu of options for wagering was like a foreign language to us. In addition to the standard “win,” “place” and “show,” there were exotic options, such as “Exacta,” Superfecta,” and “Rolling Double.” Too bad we had missed the free newcomers’ seminar held every race day one hour before the first race, but figured out the basics using the guide inside the program book.
And They’re Off
For the first post at 2 pm, we had the privilege of a space at the rail. We watched the action on jumbo screens while the horses made their way around the track and into view. As they got closer and rounded the corner toward us, the excitement was palatable. The crowd roared and the announcer sang out an enthusiastic moment-by-moment narrative of the places of the horses. Fitting for the first race of the day, it was a thrilling finish with the winner taking the prize by a nose.
After the race, the winning jockey and his thoroughbred trotted into the winner’s circle, which was actually a square patch of grass near the track entrance. The beaming rider was greeted by the gleeful owners and their guests. As the jockey in his shiny pink silks was leaving the winner’s circle, he saw my son staring in awe, and he stepped over to him and placed his helmet on my son’s head. It was a photo-finish moment that’s a strong contender for the cover of our holiday card this year.
Family Day at the Races
The next few races, timed about 20 minutes apart, we watched rather than wagered. We also trekked to the infield — glad we had brought a stroller for the long walk — to check out Family Day. The festivities included games, bounce houses, slides and other attractions for kids of all ages. Families were camped out in lawn chairs and on blankets, covering every grassy spot of the infield. Despite a sizable crowd, the staff did an admirable job of keeping the lines moving and orderly for the activities, though the wait for hot dogs and BBQ was too long, so we opted for a bag of Kettle Corn to hold us over until lunch.
For older kids, ages five to 12, we learned there is a Camp Del Mar where for $24 per child campers can partake in games, race contests, arts and crafts and other activities while their parents enjoy the races. But children are very much welcome at the park, and in fact, kids under 18 get in free.
While the infield offered free-for-all fun, we preferred our reserved table at the Stretch Run Grill. Overall, a day at the races can be very affordable, with general admission walk-around tickets for as low as $6, or a reserved seat for $10. But a table with service, priced around $100, is a more relaxed way to enjoy the races. For those who choose a more exclusive vantage, luxury suites with boxes lease for $35,000 for the season.
Our late lunch of a club sandwich and burger with a couple bags of chips and sodas was way overpriced at $60, but still, having a server to take care of us was worth it. We had a terrific view of the track, which between races served as a stage for a variety of entertainment, including singers and a Hippity-Hop race for kids. The latter event was particularly memorable as a dozen kids bounced down the field to a roar of cheers, and a tiny girl of about five years, who came in a distant last place, crossed the finish line to the loudest cheers of the day.
A Winning Day
We placed a few bets, mostly at the $2 minimum level, with our son helping to choose the horses based on their names, such as Pink Leninade and Onebadboy. We actually got lucky and were up by about $40 at one point, but we lost all our winnings in the next couple of races wagering on a couple long shots that didn’t pan out. Despite not coming out big winners, we enjoyed the thrill of the race and the chance to win.
Our day at the racetrack was a far cry from what I imagined it would be, based on my impressions of the race track fans I’d encountered as a teen at People’s Drug Store. It was a terrific family outing, and now that I’ve learned that the Thoroughbred Club will be coming to other California race tracks in my neck of the woods – Santa Anita in September and Hollywood Park in November, which offers night racing, I’m already brushing up on my racing terms, hoping to try my luck in a stakes race, perhaps with a Rolling Pick Three or a Super High Five. I’ll be sure to bring along my son, to pick a few winners, and of course, to enjoy the family activities.