Since the late 1930s, it has served as the summer getaway for racetrackers. Whether it be an average joe or a star of stage, screen and television, the venue has beckoned millions with its laid back-vibe and elegant Mission architecture. And many of those individuals have been treated to some of Thoroughbred racing's biggest moments while watching from the stands.
Following the success of Santa Anita Park, the place that fans have come to know as "Where the Turf Meets the Surf" opened for business on July 3, 1937. Spearheading the venture was noted entertainer Bing Crosby, himself a big racing fan. In fact, Crosby has the distinction of being the first winning owner at Del Mar. His horse, High Strike, was the first horse to win a race at the plant.
From its early years, Del Mar was able to attract big names, both of the Thoroughbred and entertainment variety. In addition to Crosby, actor Pat O'Brien was part of the management team, and it was not uncommon to see movie and television stars like Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Jimmy Durante, Ava Gardner, Mickey Rooney, and others attending the races. They could be there as owners, bettors, or maybe even both. Indeed, just as Santa Anita was over in Arcadia, Del Mar was the place to see stars during the summer.
Speaking of stars, the first big horse to make an impact at Del Mar was none other than Seabiscuit. He made his one appearance at the seaside in 1938 during the track's second season. Taking on Crosby's horse, Ligaroti, in a match race, the contest was an event broadcast on radio. The Biscuit emerged as the victor in that race, and he single-handedly brought attention to the new Southern California venue with that single start. That alone made him a Del Mar legend.
Many notable horses followed Seabiscuit as Del Mar moved into the 1940s and beyond. Tomy Lee, Native Diver, Ancient Title, Landaluce, Snow Chief, Best Pal, Lava Man, Zenyatta, California Chrome, Beholder, and American Pharoah can all be counted as stakes champions, with more than one in that group winning at least a Triple Crown race (and in American Pharoah's case, the actual Triple Crown). Not only that, several of them have gone down in history as Eclipse Award winners, making Del Mar a stopping point for many a champion equine in its storied history.
And the jockeys? Del Mar has been the summer home for a plethora of legendary riders, and none are as legendary as Bill Shoemaker. For most of the 1950's, Shoe had no peer at the meet, either sharing or winning five straight riding titles there in that decade alone. The highlight during that period of Shoe's career was his record ninety-four wins at that 1954 meet, which is still a single season record in the present day. With the exception of Laffit Pincay, Jr. scoring eighty-six victories during the summer of 1976, no one has approached Shoe's standard.
Along with Shoe and Pincay, some of the all-time greatest riders have held court at Del Mar. John Longden famously shared the 1950 meet title with Shoe, and fellow Hall of Famers like Eddie Delahoussaye, Victor Espinoza, Chris McCarron, Ralph Neves, Mike Smith, Alex Solis and Gary Stevens have all made their mark on the main track and turf courses there, and some of continue to do so in the 2020's.
When discussing trainers, you can count on Del Mar being the summer base for California's finest conditioners. William Molter, who trained the outstanding Round Table, earned multiple training titles several times in his career, and Farrell Jones stands as the benchmark with his eleven training crowns. Bob Baffert has picked up several records by the beach during his tenure in Southern California, and Ron McAnally has won dozens of stakes with his expert horsemanship. Mel Stute and Charlie Whittingham, both of whom are synonomous with Southern California racing, complied hundreds of travels to the winners' circle, as have longtime local conditioners like Peter Miller, Doug O'Neill and John Sadler.
And Del Mar is very much an exclusive arena for announcers. Joe Hernandez, Harry Henson and Trevor Denman have been the three primary voices of racing action since 1937, and those are three of the best in the history of the profession. Again, greatness can be found everywhere at Del Mar.
Of course, no racetrack's history is complete without some memorable moments. Along with Seabiscuit's win and Shoemaker and Longden being named co-riding champions in 1950, Del Mar has been the site of some truly remarkable feats since it first welcomed crowds.
-John Longden overtook Sir Gordon Richards as the world's winningest jockey at the track on Labor Day 1956.
-The 1958 Del Mar Futurity produced the next year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winners in Tomy Lee and Royal Orbit, giving the track a link to the Triple Crown.
-Before his unprecedented run in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Native Diver scored a triple by taking the San Diego Handicap in 1963, 1964 and 1965. The Diver also won the 1967 Del Mar Handicap, which turned out to be his last career start befor passing suddenly less than two weeks later due to colic.
-Fourteen years after Longden claimed the all-time wins record, Shoemaker rode Dares J to a win on Labor Day 1970 to succeed Longden as the new titleholder. Shoe would hold on tothat moniker for close to thirty years.
-In a gathering featuring retired jockeys, Del Mar adds the Rocking Chair Derby to its annual schedule for multiple seasons starting in the 1970s.
-Best Pal, the hometown hero, thrilled the Del Mar crowd when he came to the wire first in the inaugural Pacific Classic during the 1991 meeting. Campaigned by nearby Golden Eagle Farm and bred by local racing personalities John and Betty Mabee, Best Pal delivered one of the most popular victories ever at Del Mar.
-Five years after Best Pal's triumph, Dare and Go put together the most shocking moment in track history as he thwarted Cigar's bid to surpass Citation sixteen-race winning streak by winning the 1996 Pacific Classic in front of a massive crowd.
-Lava Man entered racing history as the first horse to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic in one year when he took the latter event in 2006. Game On Dude would match that in 2013, and Accelerate in 2018.
-With her patented stretch run, Zenyatta stamped her name in Del Mar lore as she won three straight runnings of the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
-Just a few weeks after a close third in the Breeders' Cup Classic, California Chrome emerged with a victory in the Hollywood Derby in what turned out to be his only start on turf. The win plays a major role in his winning Champion Three-Year-Old and Horse of the Year honors at the Eclipse Awards.
-Beholder made history in the 2015 Pacific Classic when she beat the boys in the marquee event. No female horse was champion of the race before her, and none have done so since.
-In 2017, Del Mar hosted the Breeders' Cup for the first time. With Hollywood Park's closure in 2013, Del Mar began hosting fall racing in 2014, thus paving the way for the Breeders' Cup to arrive there. The track earned high acclaim for its handling of the event, and will again play host in 2021.
As Del Mar marches on well into the twenty-first century, it continues to host high-class racing and entertain large crowds each year. With fall racing firmly a part of the schedule, more people have taken their place in the grandstand to witness the majesty of Thoroughbred racing. And each day, fans can hear Crosby croon the song "Where the Turf Meets the Surf."
Though in the modern era, Del Mar carries that throwback charm on a daily basis. It also carries with it a legendary status, which has been well-earned after decades in the sport.
And as the track journeys toward the century mark, its legend will only grow.