Updated on 09/16/2011 7:52AM

Beach party with hats, horses, mutuels

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DEL MAR, Calif. - There are few days in racing quite like opening day at Del Mar, where the party-like atmosphere has made it a must-do on the social scene in Southern California. Wednesday's opener, run in ideal conditions, was the best in track history, with 37,284 squeezing themselves into the track and their skimpy outfits.

The attendance eclipsed the previous opening-day record of 34,697, set in 1994, and was the second-biggest in track history, behind the 44,181 who turned out to see Cigar when he attempted to win the 1996 Pacific Classic. The ontrack handle of $4,152,233 was a 4.2 percent increase from one year ago, and the overall handle was $12,469,301, a slight gain from last year.

By comparison, Saratoga had a record opening-day attendance of 32,913, lower than Del Mar's, but Saratoga's overall handle was $14,941,865, higher than Del Mar's.

Del Mar also had to go up against a San Diego Padres-Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game that was played on Wednesday afternoon 25 miles from the track. That was the first time the track had ever had such a conflict, making the numbers all the more remarkable.

Other than the requisite traffic jams, long mutuel lines, and uncomfortably large crowds in the turf club, the day went smoothly. Trevor Denman, the track commentator, got the crowd pumped up when, just before the first race, he announced that the stock market had closed significantly higher.

"Opening day seems to have taken on a life of its own," said Joe Harper, Del Mar's president and general manager, at day's end. "It's one of the great parties in the racing industry next to Kentucky Derby Day.

"I'd love," Harper said, "to get them to all come out again. Somebody asked where they all go after today? The gym."

Harper admitted he did not think Del Mar would have such a gigantic day.

"I'm very happy," he said. "Obviously the numbers give us a wonderful feeling. I thought we'd get about 30,000. It was a good day."

Rick Pitino, the University of Louisville basketball coach, and San Diego Chargers all-star linebacker Junior Seau were among those in attendance.

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With front-runners and closers, jockeys Laffit Pincay Jr. and Patrick Valenzuela ended lengthy droughts in the Oceanside Stakes with victories in divisions of the race on opening day.

Pincay's win in the first division aboard the front-running Rock Opera was his first in the race since 1987. Valenzuela scored his first Oceanside victory since 1989 when True Phenomenon rallied from the back of the field to win the second division.

Both winners figure to return in the $300,000 Del Mar Derby on Sept. 7.

Rock Opera ($7.20) led throughout the $82,800 first division and set a stakes record of 1:34.14 for one mile on turf. Rock Opera set fractions of 23.79 and 47.46 seconds and won by three-quarters of a length over Johar, who was blocked on the final turn.

Rock Opera has won 3 of 4 starts and $115,680 for owners Lynn Ballantyne and Randy Welty and trainer Clifford Sise. In past races, Rock Opera had been rank on turns, but he had no trouble on Wednesday.

"He's getting better all the time," said Pincay, who rode three winners on Wednesday. "He makes the turns better and he had enough to hold them off."

Johar closed 2 1/2 lengths in the final furlong. He finished a length in front of Mountain Rage, who was the 6-5 favorite on the strength of a four-race winning streak in turf stakes.

In the $84,300 second division, True Phenomenon gave Valenzuela his first stakes win at Del Mar since 1996. Wednesday marked the first time Valenzuela has ridden here since 1997 due to a series of suspensions for substance abuse problems.

True Phenomenon ($13.20) was at the back of the field until early stretch when Valenzuela launched a wide rally that led to a one-length win over Dream Machine in 1:34.52.

"I worked him to the outside and he fired," Valenzuela said. "He felt great. This is great to be back at Del Mar."

A French import trained by Bobby Frankel for Stonerside Stable, True Phenomenon was making his third start in the U.S. He was fourth in the Will Rogers Stakes and sixth in the Affirmed Handicap on dirt at Hollywood Park.

Dream Machine, a French import making his U.S. debut, rallied from last to finish three-quarters of a length in front of Diamond Hope.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen