In 1937, world-famous recording artist and movie star Bing Crosby (along with some of his Hollywood pals like Jimmy Durante and Pat O’Brien) set out to achieve a horse racing dream they had talked about for many years. They wanted to build a world-class horse race track where they could go wild horse betting all day and get wilder partying all night while enjoying the refreshing climate and cool ocean breezes of San Diego. As a result, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club was born and built.
When the racetrack opened in 1937, Bing Crosby himself was at the gate to personally greet the fans. The seaside city of Del Mar, just north of San Diego, soon became famous as the home of the Del Mar racetrack, visited by spectators, tourists, horsemen and horse racing fans from all across America.
In August of 1938, the track hosted a $25,000 winner-take-all race between Charles S. Howard’s Seabiscuit and the Binglin Stable’s colt, Ligaroti. This was an era when horse racing ranked second in popularity only to Major League Baseball. The race was front page sports section news in all the major newspapers was the first nationwide broadcast of a thoroughbred horse race by NBC radio. Seabiscuit won this important race by a nose before a record crowd and the racetrack was “on the map” as one of the most famous race tracks in the world.
In the years between 1938 and 1941, the track and the town entertained recording stars and Hollywood luminaries the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Mickey Rooney, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Dorothy Lamour, Ava Gardner and Don Ameche. Joe Frisco, a comedian of the day would crack racetrack one-liners, most of which played on his reputation as an inveterate loser: “I went to the racetrack today but it was closed, so I just shoved the money under the door.”
IN 1942 the racetrack was shut down when the U.S. plunged into World War II. In the early war years it was a training base for the U.S. Marine Corps, then used as a manufacturing site for B-17 bombers. After the surrender of Japan in 1945, President Truman declared August 15 a national holiday and 20,324 patrons attended the races to bet a whopping $958,476, a Del Mar record.
In 1946 the Santa Fe Railroad began offering a race track special to bring spectators, bettors and horses to Del Mar from Los Angeles. Greeting the train (the “racetrack special”) at the train station became a popular tradition for residents. Today, in 2009, more than seventy years (and sixty million dollars in improvements) later, the racing season begins on July 22 and extends through September 9.
(c) 2009 Terry Hunefeld – all rights reserved