The History of Del Mar
From Seabiscuit to Shoemaker, a rich 80-year past lives “Where the Turf Meets the Surf”
July 3, 1937: Bing Crosby greets fans when the gates open for the track’s grand opening. | Photo courtesy of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club
At the start, the middle, and the end of every racing day at Del Mar, the song is heard over the loudspeaker:
"Where the turf meets the surf / Down at old Del Mar / Take a plane, take a train, take a car / There’s a smile on every face / And a winner in each race / Where the turf meets the surf at Del Mar"
The first and last renditions are Bing Crosby’s original 1938 recording. The other, around the sixth or seventh race, is done live by a volunteer, in homage to the man and the track he founded. What it was then. What it is now.
Of course, a lot has changed in the 80 years since the racetrack opened. But looking around and listening to those words, one can easily sense that the essence of Del Mar that Crosby captured hasn’t changed all that much.
Crosby's song reflects the past, present, and future of a place that has become special to multitudes of jockeys, trainers, and fans in San Diego County, Southern California, and across America—and is now being introduced to the world by virtue of hosting the Breeders’ Cup. From the ’30s to the ’50s, Bing Crosby was an entertainment superstar on the air, on screen, and in record sales. He would become quite possibly the best-selling recording artist of all time, selling close to a billion records across various media worldwide.
Such fame and the fortune that came with it enabled Crosby to indulge in his passion for sports, of which the founding of Del Mar Racetrack was a major, but not the only, part. A professional golf tournament he started in nearby Rancho Santa Fe was moved to the Monterey Peninsula and lasted for decades as the “Crosby Clambake” pro-am. He was part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team from 1946 until his death in 1977, but was too nervous to watch the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, the Bill Mazeroski walk-off home run epic, and instead listened to it on the radio from Paris. Crosby had purchased part of the historic Don Juan Osuna Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe and had moved in by the time the 22nd District Agricultural Association of California began to build a fairgrounds on the present site.
A sportsman named William A. Quigley, then living in La Jolla, pitched the idea of forming a syndicate to put on a racing meet. Crosby was enthusiastic and recruited Hollywood friends Pat O’Brien, Oliver Hardy, Joe E. Brown, Gary Cooper, and Crosby’s brother Everett to form the Del Mar Turf Club organization. The path from idea to reality wasn’t always smooth. But on opening day, July 3, 1937, there was Bing, yachting cap jauntily perched on his head and pipe in his teeth, to greet the first customer at the turnstile. Crosby changed to a bright blue jacket, white slacks, and straw boater for the official opening ceremony, telling the crowd: “We hope you all enjoy the meeting—and have a measure of success at the payoff windows.” The first race was won wire-to-wire by a horse named High Strike, owned by Crosby. Apparently, the opening day crowd of 15,000 didn’t find that suspicious at all, cheering loudly through the whole race and ceremonies that followed.
The second season, 1938, featured the event that put Del Mar on the map: a match race that Crosby conceived, promoted, and marketed to the hilt, even by modern day standards. Seabiscuit was a national sensation, a rags-to-riches inspiration for an America still recovering from the Great Depression. He was owned by Charles S. Howard, a Del Mar director. Ligaroti was a recent import from Argentina co-owned by Crosby and by Howard’s son, Lin. It was a non-betting race, but 20,000 fans were on track and untold thousands more listened to the NBC radio broadcast, which featured Crosby and Pat O’Brien on mic from the roof of the grandstand.
The race was so intense that jockeys George Woolf on Seabiscuit and Noel Richardson on Ligaroti engaged in near-hand-to-hand combat down the stretch. Seabiscuit ultimately won by a nose, breaking a track record by four seconds. Thus established, Del Mar proved a solid business and racing enterprise until World War II brought things to a halt from 1942 to 1945. Initially, the facilities were used as training quarters for marines. Then the Del Mar Turf Club Aircraft Division was formed, and assembly lines were set up in the grandstand to manufacture wing ribs for B-17 bombers.
On April 17, 1946, Crosby sold his stock, ending a colorful first era for Del Mar. The track would pass through one ownership group before the lease to run the meeting was acquired, in 1970, by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, a group of California owners, breeders, and community leaders. They have held it ever since, and likely ever will—their most recent extension lasts through 2030.