Though it is sometimes overshadowed by more famous tracks back East like Churchill downs and Belmont Park, Del Mar Racetrack in Southern California has a rich and fascinating history. Located 20 miles north of San Diego and known for its iconic slogan “Where The Surf Meets the Turf”, Del Mar has not only hosted the best horses and jockeys on the planet but a ‘who’s who’ of show biz elite.
The Del Mar Race Track was founded in the late’30′s by a group of business and show biz elite, including Bing Crosby, Oliver Hardy and Jimmy Durante. During much of the pre WW II era, horse racing ran a close second to baseball in mainstream popularity, so these racing enthusiasts were clearly at the right place at the right time in terms of market forces.
Additionally, the star power involved with the project also provided a trendy cachet that the tonier race courses back East lacked. Bing Crosby himself greeted patrons at the gate on opening day, and during the late’30s and early’40s it became a place to be seen for Hollywood A-listers and those who aspired for celebrity. In addition to known gambling enthusiasts like W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen and Red Skelton, the Del Mar patrons during that time also included some of the top female stars of the era including Ava Gardner, Paulette Goddard and Dorothy Lamour.
Del Mar was the site of the’38 match race between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti. Seabiscut won the $25,000 winner take all challenge by a nose, and this race set Del Mar betting and attendance records and remains one of the most famous races in history. The racing at Del Mar continued to flourish until the start of WWII, when the track went ‘dark’ for racing.
After the war, Del Mar reopened with a bang. The track reopened the day after Japan formally surrendered to Allied forces, and on that day Del Mar attracted over 20,000 fans through its gates who wagered what at the time was a record $958,476. The postwar prosperity was also a boon to Del Mar, which also benefitted from the Santa Fe Railroads daily Racetrack Special that brought bettors down from Los Angeles to enjoy a day at the track. During the latter part of the decade a new crop of Hollywood glitterati would flock to Del Mar, including Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Mickey Rooney John Holmes, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Durante would become such a regular that the turf course at Del Mar would later be renamed in his honor.
The annual race meet at Del Mar remains a highlight of the summer to this day. Del Mar remains one of the top tracks in the country, and have recently upgraded their facility with a state of the art grandstand and was one of the first tracks to install a new synthetic racing surface.