I drove up to Del Mar this morning, parked at the racetrack for free, walked in the gates for free, helped myself to a free cup of coffee and chocolate donut with sprinkles, and settled down to listen to three colorful track denizens answer questions about the world of horseracing. At some point, long-time track announcer Trevor Denman, who was moderating the event, mentioned that this was the 22nd annual “Donuts at Del Mar” event. Somehow I’d never heard about it in the past, and if I had, I might have vascillated, wondering if it was worth the investment in time and gas to go. But I enjoyed it so much, I’ll make it a point to go again.
From the hugely heterogenous audience — grizzled handicappers and neophytes, school kids, pensioners — the questions flowed nonstop. A few were too arcane to interest me (relating to the intricacies of betting exactas and quinellas; or buying claiming horses), but many were excellent. One guy asked Denman how he manages to keep straight all those thundering beasts whose status he has to announce (under such exciting conditions.) He told us he can’t identify the horses by their numbers (which are indecipherable at a distance), but rather commits to memory some link between each jockey’s colors and his or her horse’s name. He only needs two or three minutes before the horses shoot out of the gate to do this, he asserted; concentrating hard for just 10 seconds per horse was all it takes.
Over the course of the two hours, I learned that the favorites win roughly 30% of the time; that the fastest horses reach about 40 miles per hour; that jockeys are supposed to weigh 110 pounds (and their clothes add another four or so pounds). I learned that a good workout for a racehorse takes about 45 minutes . The trainers have from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. every day to arrange that for their animals (a total of approximately 1800 horses at Del Mar.) They’re ridden for the most part by exercise riders, but also by jockeys, including the top names in the business. The jockeys typically ride six or seven horses every morning, for which they earn nothing other than the trainer’s good will (which increases their chances of being hired). “You need to be seen to get horses,” someone commented.
The jockey on the panel was the dazzling Chantal Sutherland, the 35-year-old Canadian superstar who’s been winning big prizes for the past decade. Asked how much jockeys make, she explained that they get 10% of the purse if they win; otherwise it’s only $100 per race. Denman jumped in to note that though elite jockeys might take in $500,000 a year, the government clips 40% off that, the jockey’s agent gets another 30%, and the requisite valet gets an additional 5% (bites that reduce the gross earnings by 75%.) Someone else asked Sutherland how horseracing in America compares to the scene in Canada, and she answered that fans in the US are much more excited and involved. She singled out the crowds at Saratoga and Del Mar for being particularly delightful. “I can hear you roar when we’re riding. It’s exhilerating!”
Another Donuts Day will be held Saturday, August 13,* and the track also invites the public to experience “Daybreak at Del Mar” every Saturday and Sunday from 7:30 to 9:30. For this, they serve a $9.95 brunch in the Clubhouse Terrace Restaurant, deducting the usual $10 parking fee from the purchase of two breakfasts. Trackside announcer and former jockey Jeff Blooms also provides inside commentary about the horses while they tune up.
It’s also still possible to just go early every weekday morning, for free, to take in the workouts, though doing this wouldn’t help me pick winners at the races later in the day, because I wouldn’t know which horses I was looking at. Unlike the professional “clockers” in the stands during workouts who identify the horses by their markings (e.g. white spots on their noses or feet) and saddle cloths, if you’re a rube (like me), all you can do is thrill to the beauty of the equine athletes, speeding by in a blur, doing what they were born for.
* An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that the Donuts Day I attended was the only one this season. My friend Leslie Venolia (who’s the Reader’s Events Editor) set me straight, so I’ve corrected the error.