Up at Santa Anita Park (in Arcadia, northeast of downtown LA), you can take a free tram tour of the stable area and receiving barn most weekends during the racing season. But the corresponding section of the Del Mar Racetrack admits fewer outsiders. It’s a much smaller place, crammed with around 45 barns sheltering more than 2,000 thoroughbreds and their grooms. So I was delighted to be able to tag along when Director of Media Mac McBride escorted my photographer pals Howie Rosen and Alberto Lau there last week. Albie and Howie are capturing images for a book about Hidden San Diego. If any place fits that description, this is it.
Although the racetrack itself is hardly hidden (more than 46,300 folks showed up July 20 for the opening of this season — an all-time record), sometimes I feel that many people overlook it. My friend Jenny has lived fewer than 10 miles away (as the crow flies) for something like 40 years but had never gone to the track until I enticed her there one recent Friday. She was crazy about the whole experience and instantly began planning to return with her young granddaughters. But somehow, for all those years, she’d missed out on it.
The barn area is different from the track. It felt to me like one of those Brigadoons inhabited by those caught up in an esoteric spell, a place where time stands still. We arrived just before sunrise, when the light was magical. Morning workout activities had been in progress for over an hour. McBride had gotten permission from the amiable John Shirreffs, trainer of the legendary Zenyatta, for us to hang out in the area where his 30 horses are stabled. There was plenty to watch. Exercise riders and jockeys trotted in and out, and a little parade of grooms walked horses calmly around a narrow strip of grass. One groom was soaping up and hosing down a nervous young gray colt. Others later took their place.
I asked McBride if it was true the thoroughbreds once got to romp on the nearby beach. He confirmed this. The animals had loved it, and many trainers thought the cold salt water benefitted their legs. But McBride said at least one litigious soul who chanced upon a deposit of horse manure threatened to sue the track. When the terrible storms in the winter of 1980 also blocked the tunnel leading to the beach, it seemed an omen that the enchanting sight of horses playing in the Del Mar surf would forever vanish.
McBride says the Del Mar facility remains idyllic for other reasons. He compared it to the Hollywood Park track in gritty, hot, and often smoggy Englewood. Nights there often throb with the noise from police helicopters wheeling overhead; the crack of distant gunshots sometimes reaches sensitive equine ears. But within 4 or 5 days of the horses’arrival for the Del Mar racing season, “They dapple right up,” he boasted; their coats develop the little whorled patterns that indicate excellent health and spirits. “They’re feeling good. They’re getting good air and sunshine. They smell the ocean. They love it here.”
McBride later led us to the guinea stand, the green wooden platform overlooking the head of the backstretch. Track insiders congregate there to study the horses streaking by, trying to discern the messages conveyed by their bodies. “If they bow their necks, they’re talking to you,” McBride told me. “They’re saying, ‘I feel so good, if I felt any better, you’d have to call the sheriff.'” A minute or two later I saw a horse tearing along and doing just that. The sight made me so happy, for an instant I felt like opening up my wallet, taking out a fistful of dollars, and throwing them up into the air. It was a good thing the betting windows were closed.
Here are a few more of the morning’s lovely images: