Where Tradition Meets the Turf
By Kim Cromwell
It was magic back then. A magnet for the stars. Del Mar provided them a set extraordinaire, a backdrop of the Pacific with the track as their playground.
It was a time when Jimmy Durante could walk down the street and everybody knew who he was. And nobody hassled him. The warmth that surrounded Jimmy was as wondrous as the sun on the Pacific. And that warmth was for everybody.
Joe Harper, the longtime general manager at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, used to go to the track as a boy with his mother in those days. “Every Saturday night the Turf Club was open for dinner,” he remembers. “At that time there were really no restaurants in Del Mar. You had to go to La Jolla to eat. A bonus at the Turf Club was that Jimmy Durante was there, and he would play piano and sing out on the patio.”
Jimmy’s widow, Marge, who still goes to the track every day during the meet, says that in the old days Jimmy would tell a few jokes and they’d hang out at the track with Jimmy’s buddy, Clement Hirsch, and Georgie Jessel, Harry James and Betty Grable.
Hirsch remembers: “We’d do a lot of offshore fishing in front of the house—sometimes as late as 1 or 2 in the morning. Jimmy liked to do that. He went to the races a lot, too, and he’d bet on a number of horses. He might bet on five out of a 10-horse race. He’d jump up and down. After one race I asked him how he did. He turned around and said, ‘Clement, I lost 15 bucks.’ And that’s how he was. He wouldn’t bet much, but he’d bet a lot of races.”
There were other Hollywood famous, too. Lucy and Ricky were always there. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, if you prefer. In later years, it was just Desi.
Pat JaCoby, a Del Marian for 37 years, remembers when she was asked to give Desi a ride to the Old Globe Theatre. “He was going to be honored there. He didn’t drive. I had a brand-new car. I didn’t know what I’d do if he smoked in my car. He came wearing yellow pants, white shoes, a white belt, a white hat and ... smoking that cigar. I didn’t say a word. He smoked in the car all the way down and talked about himself the whole time.”
Longtime Del Mar resident and Historical Society President Don Terwilliger remembers it was like “a breath of fresh air to have the races in town” each summer. But then, he was starstruck. For him it was Betty Grable. She stayed at the Hotel Del Mar and later rented houses on the beach. He sat on the beach, just a few feet away from her. “I’d stutter and ask her the stupidest questions. And I watched her chew gum. She chewed gum like a hooker,” he says.
Still, in the old days there was a certain air of sophistication. Stars might smack their gum, but people wore ties and hats in the grandstand. Today? Same season; different seasoning. Now there are more people, more restaurants, more cars—and the yuppies own Del Mar. During the meet, “even the air gets louder,” says Del Mar Plaza’s director of marketing, Maggie Brown.
The locals tolerate it. Only tolerate.
Nancy Ray, who’s lived in Del Mar for 30 years, says, “Del Marians are insular. They don’t want any part of any other town. They want to do their own things their own way. The fair and the racing season disrupt this insularity.”
But for some it becomes an entrepreneurial opportunity. During Del Mar’s seven-week annual pregnancy, many locals skip town and rent their homes to the racing crowd. “And at fabulous prices,” says Ray. “Up to $25,000 for a four-bedroom house on the beach” (for the length of the meet).
No more going to La Jolla to eat. Now Del Mar is known for its restaurants. And horse aficionados, after a day at the races, have their favorite haunts: Red Tracton’s, the Brigantine, a barstool at Bully’s. The locals make way.
“We’ll see you in September” is a common cry from regulars in July, says Bully’s general manager Tony Comito, who’s been around for 29 years. But Comito has made more than a few racetrack friends through those years. Now, standing behind his bar, he says the old-timers are fading away.
“I remember Willie Shoemaker, one night, sitting up on that bar, holding court,” Comito says. “He had 30 people out here—you know, all the buds at 2 in the morning, closing time. I said, ‘Get outta here.’ Somebody was renting this big house down on the beach, so we all went down there and partied till 6 in the morning. That day Shoemaker won six races. Those were the good ol’ days.”
Comito also remembers when Bully’s was just about the only show in town. No more. Del Mar Plaza has three of the town’s better restaurants today: Pacifica Del Mar, Epazote and Il Fornaio. Across the street is L’Auberge, a popular place year-round for celebs looking to get away from it all. Bonnie Raitt, Naomi Judd, George Hamilton. If you stay in downtown Del Mar, most places are within walking distance. Good thing. Parking is a nightmare.
“Most weekends in Del Mar, you just can’t park in town. You can’t even park in front of your own house,” says Ray. (Visitors will be part of an experiment this summer being conducted by the Del Mar Village Association: valet parking along Camino del Mar.)
Yes, the crowd at the track has changed. Could it be the free concerts? A jazz series on Wednesday evenings featuring such artists as Kenny Rankin and Tom Scott? Or the rock ’n’ roll series featuring local bands on Fridays, following the races? But along with the yuppies and the Generation Xers, the celebrities still come to play.
Some of the names may have changed: Wayne Gretzky, Wilt Chamberlain, David Cassidy, Rod Stewart, Rachel Hunter, M.C. Hammer, Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Woods, Dennis Rodman, Atlanta Braves right fielder David Justice. But some remain the same: Tim Conway, Jack Klugman, John Forsythe, Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, Jackie Cooper, Martin Milner, Dick Van Patten, Burt Bacharach.
The Del Mar track enjoys the top position in average daily attendance nationwide. Although that figure was down last year by 5 percent, revenue was up. Dan Smith, director of marketing and media at the track, has one explanation: “A lot of states feature legalized casino gambling now. It’s major competition for racing, which used to be the only form of legalized gambling across the country.”
The track’s parimutuel handle has increased from around $900,000 a day back in the late ’60s to more than $11 million today. The City of Del Mar gets a percentage of the track’s parimutuel, on- and offtrack revenue, which may help soften the blow of the summer invasion. “It’s kind of like having a rich uncle, except that he stays for seven weeks,” Ray says.
Among the locals whose names are synonymous with the Del Mar season are Sid and Jenny Craig. Other prominent horse owners visible at the track are John Mabee and Allen Paulson. The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has its own official vet, Dr. Jock Jocoy. Should a horse require surgery, there’s the nearby Helen Woodward Animal Center.
Del Mar’s track was built by the WPA during the Depression of the 1930s, and a franchise for racing there was granted to crooner Bing Crosby. But nearly 60 years later, Crosby was a memory and the structure needed reinforcement. In 1992, an $80 million renovation was completed, which also helps accommodate the ever-increasing influx of racing enthusiasts descending on Del Mar’s “Saratoga of the West.”
“It’s not just Americans and people from L.A. anymore. If you walk up and down the streets and listen to people talking, you’ll hear dialects from Europe and Asia—from all over,” says Jocoy.
Says Al JaCoby, “Some Del Marians think the racetrack has gotten too big—that it’s lost that family feeling.”
“Stop da music! Stop da music!”
Kip Downing, who owns the Pacifica Del Mar restaurant, thinks the changes have worked. “They didn’t ruin the charm of the original design,” he says. “It’s a great track, and you can still sit in the stands and look at the ocean.”
So some things haven’t changed where the turf meets the surf. Like the blue Pacific. And Bing Crosby’s recorded voice echoing through the grandstand at the start of each racing day. And the spirit of Del Mar’s departed unofficial mayor—with that outsized proboscis and oversized heart. What would Jimmy Durante say at this point?
“Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”