Del Mar’s 81st meet kicks off with hats, horses and Hasselhoff


Call it beginner’s luck.

Three months ago, Robert Manly bought his first stake in a horse-racing group and by the end of the first race Wednesday at the Del Mar racetrack, he was standing in the winner’s circle.

That wasn’t a bad start for the Rancho Santa Fe resident’s investment in 4-year-old gelding Popular Kid. It also marked a good start to the 81st summer meet at Del Mar.

More than 40,000 people packed the grandstands for opening day festivities, which included 10 races, the 24th annual hat contest and a midday performance of “How the Turf Meets the Surf” by TV star David Hasselhoff. The star of TV’s “Baywatch” performed the song made popular by crooner Bing Crosby, who co-founded the seaside track in 1937.

Wednesday marked the 67th consecutive opening day at Del Mar for 93-year-old Leucadia resident Tom Whayne. Back in 1951, Whayne and his late wife, Phyllis, began their opening day tradition and he’s kept the streak going solo since she passed away in 1986.

He’s a retired drama teacher and she was a music teacher, so when they bought their own yearling female racehorse in 1970, they named her Dame Quickly, after the Shakespeare play and opera character. Sadly, as one sportswriter reported, Dame Quickly didn’t “run to her name,” and she retired winless several years later.

The Whaynes traveled the world watching and betting on horse races. Their biggest win was a pick-six at Agua Caliente track in Tijuana, where they won $7,200 on a $32 bet.

Overall, Whayne said he lost more than he ever won at the track but he’s done much better with real estate. The $11,000 property they bought in 1971 on Neptune Avenue is now worth over $1 million.

Whayne said he loves coming to the track for the sheer passion of the sport.

“I love the beauty of animals running, I love the animals, the heroism of the riders, the uniqueness of the scene and the sport itself,” he said.

For many opening day race-goers, the biggest attraction wasn’t on the turf but the fashions in the stands. More than $5,000 in prizes was at stake for the winners of the annual hat contest, which draws about 300 contestants each year.

Among this year’s competitors was Amparo Brean of Encinitas and her daughter, Shevon, who were both entered in the “Best Racing Theme” category.

Amparo was wearing a large, handmade, cone-shaped blue-and-gold canvas cap topped with a tiny hat-bedecked Barbie-like doll surfing a set of cresting waves. Shevon’s hat was a blue-and-gold horse standing on a horseshoe-decorated platform. Brean said she’s been competing in the contest for 12 years because she enjoys all the attention she receives for her hard work.

Contestant Liliana Prieto of San Diego won the grand prize in 2015 for her gigantic flower-topped hat. This year, she was back with another hat of enormous size. This year’s eight-pound topper was capped with a huge magnolia-style silk flower surrounded with other artificial blooms.

Even more festive were the matching bee-themed hats and yellow tutus created for the Most Outrageous category by sisters Anna Mackin of Rancho Santa Fe and Debra Mauzy-Melitz of Irvine. Mackin’s cap had a papier-mâché beehive dripping with faux honey and Mauzy-Melitz’s hat had a gigantic furry bee.

While the Turf Club was bursting at the seams Wednesday, there were thousands of other celebrants who paid $35 apiece to attend an opening day party in the stretch run parking lot. More geared for the millennial set than the older high-rollers, the party had DJs, corn hole games, selfie photo spots, a live muralist and several radio station booths.

Among those standing in a long line for beer at the party was 21-year-old Arran James of Denver, who may have been the only male at the track Wednesday wearing a jaunty ladies fascinator. He’s in town this week for a convention and came to the races because it seemed like a quintessentially “San Diego thing to do.”

This year’s summer meet continues through Sept. 3 with 41 stakes races, including the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 18. Racing returns this fall with the Bing meet from Nov. 9 to Dec. 2.

Special events planned for this summer’s meet include the Burgers & Brews fest on July 21; a craft beer festival on Aug. 18; the Turf & Surf BBQ Championship on Aug. 19; and a concert series with music starting after the final race on Friday and Saturday afternoons.

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