07/23/2003 11:00PM

Crowd upstages racing

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Joe Harper stood in the Del Mar paddock, looking a bit like Charlton Heston in center ring. Except for the jawline.

All around him the circus raged. Exotic costumes, daredevils, prancing beasts, and clowns in funny hats. Harper, the ringmaster, shook his head and repeated his familiar mantra.

"This thing has a life of its own," said Harper, Del Mar's president.

"This thing" is opening day at Del Mar, an event of such ridiculously popular proportions that even its chief impresario has become sheepish and modest in its annual glow. At this point, Harper takes no more credit for the phenomenon than he does the cool Pacific breeze. He is content if the elevators work and the plumbing behaves.

Wednesday was the first of 43 racing days this summer, but you would have thought it was the last chance of the decade. Why else would 40,682 people cram a grandstand that feels full with half that number?

Only once in Del Mar's 66-year history has there been a larger crowd in attendance. That was on Aug. 10, 1996, when 44,181 starstruck racing fans showed up to witness Cigar, and his attempt to win his 17th straight race.

In mood, there is no comparison. The Cigar throng was a tense bunch, wrestling for sight lines and killing time until the moment of the race. When their hero could run no better than second, the air left the stands like a helium balloon. A more sober Del Mar crowd you have never seen.

Wednesday's gang, typical of an opener, was oblivious to the history they made. They came to see and be seen, shoulder to tanned shoulder in the Turf Club, chock-a-block in the second floor boxes and wall-to-wall on the grandstand apron, where lubricated bozos hurled words of encouragement to jockeys and margaritas at each other. For women with access to both culturally valued genetics and plastic enhancement, it was a day to parade the goods. For the guys, trodding on each other's tongues, it was "Maxim" magazine come to life.

Clearly, Del Mar's opening day has very little to do with the reality of the horse racing world, and that's just fine with Harper. "If it can't be fun, why bother?" is his basic philosophy, and who would argue? For all its political positioning as part of the agricultural industry, or as a key employer of the low-skilled labor force, horse racing is supposed to be listed under the general category of entertainment.

Harper's pedigree is suited to the task. His grandfather was Cecille B. deMille, who made epic movies like "The Ten Commandments" and "Cleopatra" that featured, according to the hype, "a cast of thousands." Harper was there, so he should know. Playing a bit part as a young boy, he was threatened by a runaway tiger in "The Greatest Show on Earth" - voted Best Picture of 1952 - when the circus train crashed and spilled its writhing cargo.

"Grandfather had a lot better control over his crowds than I do," Harper said with a laugh, just as a woman in a hat shaped like Grand Central Station staggered dangerously close to twin models in black, shrink-wrap outfits hawking Jack Daniels whiskey.

"Of course, he paid his crowds to show up," Harper added. "Our folks pay us to be part of this. How great is that?"

Great, certainly, if the momentum of Del Mar's opening day can be tapped for the duration of the meet. Great, absolutely, if the racing newcomers on opening day liked what they saw and what they did, and pass the word to a friend. Heck, it's even great if they don't show up again until next year, on opening day.

Del Mar management is smart not to waste a big race on the first day. Nothing should upstage the crowd. On Saturday, however, the serious sport begins with the best running of the $400,000 John C. Mabee Handicap since Street Dancer beat Typecast and Manta in 1971.

For those who missed the memo, the Mabee used to be the Ramona. Named now for the late chairman of the board and Eclipse Award-winning breeder, the Mabee even makes geographic sense, since the Golden Eagle Farm of John and Betty Mabee is located near the northern San Diego County town of Ramona. Weep not for Ramona, though. The townsfolk still have their horsey pageant.

Anyway, the Mabee Handicap should not be missed. Golden Apples, champion turf mare of 2002, makes her return to competition following knee surgery last winter. Tates Creek will try to maintain her place atop the West Coast class, while Dublino and Megahertz renew their personal rivalry in the mix.

And for a Saturday bonus, Kona Gold will try to win the Bing Crosby Handicap for the third time in his storybook career. That was old Kona, age 9, poking his head out of his stall on the west side of the Bruce Headley barn late Wednesday afternoon, gawking at the traffic climbing the hill to the Solana Gate and wondering about all the fuss. He was trying to take a nap.