DEL MAR, Calif. — You can see the Pacific from the top of the grandstand at the racetrack “Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” the old Bing Crosby song. The beloved crooner founded Del Mar in 1937, calling it “his little hippodrome by the sea,” and put fellow movie stars Pat O’Brien, Laurel and Hardy and Gary Cooper on his board of directors.
Crosby and O’Brien put up a reported $600,000 to complete the grandstand, and on Del Mar’s opening day, July 3, 1937, Crosby greeted fans coming through the turnstiles. It quickly became the summer playground of the stars, graced by W.C. Fields, Ava Gardner, Jimmy Durante and many others.
It always has maintained a strong Hollywood connection, with stakes named for Crosby, O’Brien, Durante, Bob Hope, Desi Arnaz and Cary Grant. Eighty years after Del Mar got started, the racing world has gathered at this glitzy horse palace for the Breeders’ Cup championships.
Southern California’s sunbaked answer to Saratoga will feature standouts of all ages on dirt and grass in 13 Grade I events worth $26 million. The action in this San Diego suburb begins Friday with four stakes and climaxes Saturday with nine, and NBC or NBCSN will televise all 13. Champions will be crowned, an estimated $150 million will change hands worldwide, and horseplayers will party relentlessly. Del Mar is a first-time host for the Cup’s 34th running, and Bing would be so proud of how far his little hippodrome has come.
Bob Baffert is the all-time leading trainer at Del Mar, which he has dominated since the mid-Nineties. He will send out four horses in Saturday’s grand finale, the $6-million, 1¼-mile Classic, which he’s swept the past three years. Baffert is based 118 miles north at Santa Anita, but Del Mar is the white-haired wisecracker’s happy place.
“It’s a big party,” Baffert said. “I’ve always liked coming to Del Mar. It’s a scene everybody wants to enjoy.”
To enhance the experience, Breeders’ Cup Limited and Del Mar invested approximately $4.5 million. Besides widening the turf course to accommodate 14-horse fields, they expanded seating capacity to 37,500, refurbished luxury suites and trackside boxes, and installed a state-of-the-art video board. There’s even a beach-themed area in the infield, complete with sand.
“There’s nothing like the Breeders’ Cup on the West Coast,” Baffert said. “You know everybody is going to come from everywhere, the Europeans, everybody.”
And they have. Trainers from England, Ireland and France entered 36 runners, including defending champions Highland Reel (Turf) and Queen’s Trust (Filly and Mare Turf).
The forecast for both days of the pari-mutuel frenzy is sunny and 70.
“The Breeders’ Cup is an exciting two days,” Baffert said. “You see the best horses, the best jockeys, the best trainers. The atmosphere is great, especially when you have it on the West Coast. You know you’re going to be guaranteed good weather, and that’s so important.
“When you go someplace else and it’s rainy and sloppy and cold, it takes something out of it.”
BREEDERS’ CUP PICKS
Juvenile Fillies Turf: Happily, Capla Temptress, Rushing Fall
Dirt Mile: Practical Joke, Mor Spirit, Sharp Azteca
Juvenile Turf: Untamed Domain, Voting Control, Masar
Distaff: Elate, Stellar Wind, Forever Unbridled