07/18/2001 12:00AM

And, with a roar, they're off!


DEL MAR, Calif. - It was opening day at Del Mar Wednesday, and Lowell Smith had already lost his head.

It was buried, somewhere beneath a towering edifice that masqueraded as a hat. The hat featured four horses breaking from the starting gate, with "Away They Go 2001" emblazoned across the front of the faux starting gate.

Smith, a resident of the San Diego suburb of Bay Park, decided to get into the mood for his 17th consecutive opening day at Del Mar. He took a vacation day from work, and headed to the track with his wife.

"I wear one of these hats every other year, when my wife talks me into it," said Smith, who was preparing to enter the track's annual hat contest, one of the opening-day traditions here. "I love coming out here. We want to invest in a horse this meet. We already support some of the retirement homes for horses."

Smith was one of dozens of fans who either dressed in outrageous hats or dressed up in something more elegant. Many were circling each other near the paddock, like animals eyeing their prey.

Lured by perfect beach weather - clear skies, a soft breeze coming in from the west, and a high temperature in the upper 70's - the fans began entering the track hours before the day's first race, at 2 p.m. Pacific time. The the crowd ranged from people in beach chairs hugging the outside rail in the grandstand to dolled-up socialites in the turf club.

Many were imbibing early, though some wanted something stronger. "I've had several people want to know where they can get a cigar," said Sue Langhans, a customer service representative in the grandstand. It was 11 a.m.

Camera crews from five local television stations were broadcasting from the track - some from as early as 5 a.m. - as well as four radio stations. Just before the first race, traffic was snarled along the northern Solana Gate route, yet the grandstand and infield crowds appeared to be smaller than in years past.

The crowd let out a roar as the field for the first race was sent on its way from its starting point right in front of the grandstand. Laffit Pincay Jr., who won the Hollywood Park riding title on the last race on the last day Monday, picked up right where he left off by winning the opener with Our Man Red, the favorite. The Bill Spawr trainee paid $5.20.

Along the grandstand apron, Nell Denevers, from nearby Encinitas, had parked her beach chair adjacent to the winner's circle, where she had a ringside seat as her favorite jockey, Pincay, won the meet's first race.

"My husband liked this area. He used to love the races. He loved opening day," Denevers said.

Denevers was accompanied by her son, Maurice, who said he and his mother come to the races only on opening day. "It's the biggest day here," he said. "We love the ambience."

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