Del Mar? You Bet.
By Ron Donoho
As Tim Conway tells the story, two ladies seated near him are arguing over the ponies. The sky above the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club is too blue, he thinks, the ambience too perfect to bear any negative note of intrusion. So the Carol Burnett Show alum interrupts the women, whose complicated numerical system for picking winners just isn’t working.
“Let me give you a tip,” says Conway. “Before that jockey there, Chris McCarron, gets his horse into the gate, watch to see if he swings his right arm. That’s the sign to his wife that he’s on a winner and to go bet on him.” Conway doesn’t reveal the truth: McCarron, his friend, has bursitis and is merely stretching.
As the day progresses, the women and Conway watch while McCarron swings his arm before two races—and wins them both. “Hey, maybe there’s something to this,” Conway says, turning to his wife. He’s just about to bet the next McCarron mount when his wife reminds him he made the story up.
Flashback to 1945. World War II has just ended—as has a three-year “dark” period at the eight-year-old Del Mar track. Marge Durante is a young beauty, and her beau, legendary entertainer Jimmy Durante, is a track regular. She offers one word to describe the gambling scene: incessant.
“Of course, there were the horses,” says Marge, laughing as she relives the memories. “But the men also had their card games. And the women had gin rummy. And then there was Tijuana and the jai alai games. One day I said, ‘Doesn’t anybody here do anything except gamble?’”
Well, certainly. There are fine meals to be devoured in the track’s Turf Club. And nightly singing and dancing on the club’s patio. Yeah, Marge remembers that, too. “Harry James and Betty Grable were always there,” she says. “And Mickey Rooney, Eddie Cantor and Georgie Jessel. And of course, Jimmy.”
According to Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president Joe Harper, the Turf Club’s piano helped spawn one of the all-time great movie series. “Bob Hope told me this story,” says Harper. “He and Bing Crosby were doing some comedy along with piano music one night. It was really very funny. It got a lot of laughs. Bing turned to Bob and said, ‘Hey, we ought to take this on the road.’” Not long after, they did. The classic Hope-Crosby “road” pictures are favorites to this day.
The list of yesteryear stars who joined in track revelry goes on and on: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Dorothy Lamour. W.C. Fields. Edgar Bergen. Ann Miller. Don Ameche. Ava Gardner. Red Skelton.
J. Edgar Hoover would come to Scripps for an annual physical and invariably stay on for a few weeks of R&R&R (rest and relaxation and racing). And of course, there were the track’s luminary founders—Pat O’Brien and Crosby.
Why, it was Bing himself who greeted the first of 15,000 fans to walk through the gate when Del Mar opened for business on July 3, 1937. In fact, it was he who first crooned the words of the song “Where the Surf Meets the Turf.” To this day it’s played to open and close the racing day.
This year’s racing season runs from July 22 to September 8. Would Bing recognize the place today? Sort of.
In 1993, Del Mar got an $80 million renovation. The grandstand now seats 15,000. In 1996—on Pacific Classic Day, when a horse named Dare and Go stopped the ballyhooed Cigar from setting a consecutive-wins record—the track accommodated a record 44,181 fans. Including space in the infield, Harper says, the joint could pack in 60,000.
The track’s still enlivened by singers and dancers. Wednesday is Jazz Night; live bands play on Fridays. And the crowds are big. In ’97, the average daily attendance (30,578) led the nation. The average daily racing handle ($12,115,024) was second in the nation.
Celebrities still make the scene. Conway is a mainstay. He brings Carol Burnett Show sidekick Harvey Korman to the track and often hangs out with Dick Martin, Bob Newhart, Dick Van Patten and Mel Brooks. Other “names” who’ve been spotted in recent crowds: Jack Klugman. Jack Nicholson. Rod Stewart. Wayne Gretzky. M.C. Hammer. Dennis Rodman.
Conway’s been a regular since the mid-’80s. “I’ve liked horses since I was 12,” he says. “I really wanted to be a jockey. Of course, when you are heavier than a certain weight, the horses stop and ask you to get off.”
Del Mar, says Conway, is like no other track in the world: “During the racing season, it’s like one long vacation. There is a link to the history of the place, with the façade and the pictures all around. The old track had a fairground flavor; now there’s more of a modern feel. It’s still run very well. One thing I miss from the old days—the toilets overflowing on opening day. That doesn’t happen anymore. I miss that.”
“There are fewer celebrities coming than there used to be,” says Dan Smith, the track’s director of marketing and media. “But they still come. And what’s definitely the same is the laid-back feeling here. We like to say that nobody is in a hurry but the horses.”
So the atmosphere has hung on. And the song remains the same. Yet Del Mar is no longer the place stars have to be seen and photographed, as it was in its first couple of decades. (It’s more likely that today’s rich, elderly gentlemen escorting young “nieces” would just as soon not be photographed.)
But Bill Scherlis fondly remembers the days of old. The 75-year old Scherlis—who still shows up at least twice a week during the season—was track photographer from 1945 to 1975. You’d better believe he’s got stories.
“In 1945, we were still at war with Japan,” begins Scherlis. “I had one of the few portable radios around. I heard on my radio that the war was over. So I went to the press box and told them the war was over. They announced it on the P.A. system. Obviously, some people were pretty happy. But with some of the racetrack aficionados—well, I don’t think they even knew there had been a war on.”
Scherlis took many of the publicity photos that stars and starlets came looking for at the track. “Sometimes, if I didn’t have any film, I’d just shoot off a few flashbulbs to attract a crowd for them,” he says.
Then there was the day Scherlis was attempting a group photograph of Georgie Jessel, Harry James and Betty Grable. Scherlis had a bulky camera and was trying to set up the shot in a narrow passageway. Grable started grumping, says Scherlis, until James told his pin-up wife: “If it wasn’t for this photographer, you’d be out there in the grandstand instead of here in the Turf Club. You’ll smile when he tells you to smile.” Scherlis got the shot.
He also photographed the Ritz brothers, Hoagy Carmichael, Gregory Peck, Jack Dempsey and many other celebs. He remembers a time rival Hollywood gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons showed up on the same day (they had to be seated at distant—but equally impressive —tables). Scherlis also recalls the night Pat O’Brien was kidding Al Jolsen about being old. “I’ll show you old,” replied Jolsen, who pulled the cloth off a table, jumped up and danced a number that would put most young men to shame.
Scherlis says Jimmy Durante was the most accommodating star he worked with. “You can’t even believe how cooperative he was,” he says. “He’d go down to the track and get shot face-to-face with a horse —you know, to see who had the bigger nose.”
The Durantes had a house in Del Mar that was right down the street from Desi Arnaz’—one he shared with Lucy and, later, his second wife, Edie. A large number of celebrities used to summer in Del Mar during the racing season. Though not as many entertainers still do so, Joe Harper says there are upwards of 1,000 people who inhabit the town just because the horses are running.
“More than 40 percent of our crowd comes from outside San Diego County,” Harper says. “The majority are from Los Angeles and Orange counties. But quite a few upper-income people from Texas and Arizona rent homes for the seven weeks. And we’re also talking about 300 trainers and about 300 of our Turf Club patrons who live here during the season.”
Del Mar may no longer be the place where photographers like Scherlis take flashbulb-lit publicity shots of smiling celebrities. But the track is still a scene, albeit a more modern one. The plumbing’s been improved—to Conway’s smirking dismay.
There is one thing that hasn’t changed in more than half a century. If you find yourself in the Turf Club, wander over near the area that overlooks the finish line. There you’ll find Marge Durante, sitting at the same table she’s been occupying since 1946 —having fun with friends, and surrounded by that incessant gambling.