Connect
To Top

#TBSD: How the Del Mar Racetrack got its start

A look back at history and San Diego in the year 1937.

Opening Day 1937. (File photo)

It was hipster heaven in ’37 at the place where the turf met the surf, the beautiful people partied with the ponies, and sunny San Diego stepped into the Hollywood spotlight.

Bing Crosby. (Universal/TNS)

That place was the Del Mar Racetrack, which opened July 3, 1937, with its own brand of fireworks. Del Mar Turf Club founder and president Bing Crosby worked one of the turnstiles, and some 15,000 people showed up to place their bets and ogle the hats and the horseflesh. If you couldn’t make it to the track, you could catch the 45-minute live Opening Day broadcast, which aired nationwide on NBC.

The eight-race program brought in more than $183,000 in wagers. One of the day’s big winners? That would be “Der Bingle” himself. Crosby owned High Strike, the 2-year-old that won the very first race, taking $350 of the $500 purse set aside for this inaugural event. Word of the new hot spot everyone was calling “Bing’s Baby” spread faster than a speeding gelding. By the second afternoon, attendance at the seaside oval jumped to more than 18,000.

An avid horseman and horse-racing fan, Crosby owned a ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, which made bringing a track to his adopted backyard both a dream and a bit of an obsession. Crosby launched his Del Mar adventure with members of a Hollywood posse that included Gary Cooper, Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame) and Pat O’Brien, the actor best known for giving the “win just one for the Gipper” speech in 1940’s “Knute Rockne, All American.”

The setting of their first meeting? The Warner Brothers studios in Burbank. Which is why the swinging Del Mar venue’s other nickname was “Movieland’s Own Track.”

Seabiscuit and Ligaroti run neck and neck toward the finish line at the Del Mar Racetrack on Aug. 12, 1938.

Once the track opened, it became the Summer Camp to the Stars, with everyone from Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz making the scene. It was so popular, the Santa Fe Railroad opened a racetrack train running from Los Angeles to Del Mar. Sometimes, a horse would catch a ride to its gig. No word on whether the dining car was equipped with feedbags.

In 1938, Crosby recorded the jaunty “Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” which is still played before the first and last race of every program. There are more traditions where that came from. Hats are still huge, with the Opening Day Hat Contest bringing out chapeaus the size of satellite dishes. Champions still rule the track, from Seabiscuit in 1938 to Zenyatta in 2010.

And whether it is Del Mar’s Craft Beer and Pizza Festival, Tacotopia at the Track or Del Mar’s Summer Concert Series (which this year includes rapper Ludacris and superstar DJ Steve Aoki), the track is still a slice of hipster heaven. The summer racing season kicks off July 19 and runs through Labor Day, providing plenty of time to find a winning strategy. Or a hat big enough to hide behind if you bet the farm and lose your shirt.

Del Mar Opening Day 2016. (Misael Virgen/Union-Tribune)

 

Also ran: Other 1937 winners

This statue of an Aztec by Donal Hord was unveiled in 1937 on the San Diego State campus. (Dan Trevan/Union-Tribune)

Weather freaks: Rare snow flurries were seen in San Diego in January.

Progress: El Cajon Boulevard was finally paved.

Bing, again: The Del Mar Turf Club president had 17 Top 10 hit songs.

SDSU: Sculptor Donal Hord unveiled his iconic “Monty” statue, which now stands in the campus Prospective Student Center.

 

More in Feature Stories

Life's cool.

Current issue + archives

Enter email, receive cool stuff.

Copyright © 2016 Pacific San Diego Magazine. All rights reserved. A part of the tronc network.