07/23/2009 12:00AM

Beautiful people and fabulous hats

Benoit & Associates
Del Mar opened its 70th meeting on Wednesday with plenty of action for celebrity watchers and horse bettors alike.

DEL MAR, Calif. - They came from near and far for opening day at Del Mar on Wednesday, from the valleys to "The Hills."

Audrina Patridge, of the MTV series "The Hills," without co-star Lauren Conrad - certainly without Heidi and Spencer Pratt - was among the parade of celebrities and wanna-bes parading around Del Mar on Wednesday, when the track kicked off its 70th summer season on a warm afternoon.

A crowd of 40,000 was expected, which would mark the fifth straight year Del Mar reached that number. Last year's opening-day attendance of 43,459 was the second largest in track history, eclipsed only by the 44,181 who saw Cigar's win streak end in the 1996 Pacific Classic.

"It would be naive in this economy to think this will be an indication of the rest of the meet," said Craig Dado, Del Mar's soberly realistic vice president of marketing.

That wariness evaporated, at least for one day. The on-site coverage from local television and radio stations was exhaustive. The crowd began arriving hours before the first post of 2 p.m. Pacific, those living inland no doubt prompted to leave their homes early by the rising heat. It was expected to reach 100 degrees in the warmer valleys, while it was a more reasonable 80 at the track, hotter than usual owing to the lack of a breeze coming in off the ocean, but still damn nice.

Those along the apron of the track encamped as though they were at the beach. They brought in their beach chairs and coolers, and unwrapped their picnic lunches. Some unfurled small umbrellas, seeking shade.

Milton Jeffries, who lives in San Diego, had set up shop along the apron with his wife, Rochelle, and was diving into Daily Racing Form.

"I try to come every year on opening day," Jeffries said. "Out of the last 40 years, I think I've just missed opening day just two times. I like the atmosphere, the people watching."

So does Gary Collins, who with his wife, Celine, was sitting about 20 yards up the stretch from the Jeffrieses.

"Our first date was to Los Alamitos," Collins said. "We were supposed to go to the movies, but when I picked her up, I told her I had a horse I liked that night at Los Al."

They've been married 27 years, now live a half-hour from Del Mar in Escondido, and have attended almost every opening day for 20 straight years. What does he like about opening day?

Celine piped up. "The eye candy," she said.

Because opening day is one of the social highlights of the year in San Diego County, many fans go all out. The women dress as though it's Kentucky Derby Day, with fine dresses and hats. Those wearing hats, tasteful and otherwise, enter the track's annual One And Only Truly Fabulous Hat Contest. One woman had a papier mache horse head atop a sombrero, with a basket of fruit and flowers that looked like it was inspired by Carmen Miranda.

Entertainment and sports celebrities flocked to the track. Stacy Keibler, Wilmer Valderrama, and Carrie Prejean, the defrocked Miss California, were in attendance, along with NFL quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Aaron Rodgers, and San Diego Chargers Stephen Cooper, Quentin Jammer, and Darren Sproles, and their coach Norv Turner. Luke Walton of the Lakers came with his BFF, Richard Jefferson.

The biggest celebrity at Del Mar, though, is Trevor Denman, the race commentator who has become a fan favorite after calling here for more than 25 years. His classy, assured voice, absent from this circuit for the past three months, got the crowd excited with anticipation as the field neared the gate for the start of the first race, run at one mile on Polytrack, right in front of the grandstand. Moments later, when the field was dispatched by starter Gary Brinson, a loud cheer went up.

"There's the roar from the crowd," Denman shouted, emphasizing the word "roar." "The 2009 Del Mar meeting is underway."

A little more than 98 seconds later, High Stakes Silver ($22.80), trained by Vladimir Cerin, got home first in the $12,500 claiming race under apprentice jockey Christian Santiago Reyes.

"The track is good. Slow, but good," Reyes said.

Asked if he liked being leading rider, at least for a half-hour, Reyes replied, "There's plenty more to go today."