07/18/2006 11:00PM

Day not to be missed

The gates open for the first race Wednesday, signaling the start of Del Mar's 2006 meeting.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Like the swallows that return every year to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, so, too, do race fans flock to Del Mar each year for the track's opening day. It has become a must-do on the Southern California calendar, attracting people who come for the racing, to be seen because it's the place to be, or simply to enter a hat contest.

Among those scheduled to be in attendance were football standouts Tony Gonzalez, Shawne Merriman, Warren Moon, Junior Seau, and former San Diego Chargers quarterback Drew Brees - who was having a going-away party in a private suite before relocating to New Orleans this season - as well as basketball stars Richard Jefferson and Luke Walton, according to Craig Dado, Del Mar's vice-president of marketing.

They were scheduled to arrive later in the day, but an hour before the races were to begin at 2 p.m. Pacific, John Lies and Lisa Rene Anderson were already visiting friends and keeping their own opening-day streaks intact.

"I've been at every opening day since 1986," said Lies, who went to great lengths to make it 21 straight opening days. Lies is the track announcer at Lone Star Park, but with Wednesday a dark day, he flew in from Dallas for the races and was scheduled to fly out in time to be at his post for Thursday evening's races.

"I couldn't stay away. I'm a sickie," Lies said.

For the eighth straight year, Anderson, from nearby Pacific Beach, Calif., entered the "One and Only Truly Fabulous Hat Contest," an opening-day tradition that rewards hats both clever and elegant. Anderson erred on the side of clever. Her creation, constructed of papier mache and wire, was a giant lavender-colored horse head, with a rose in its mouth, that Anderson said weighed about 40 pounds.

"I'm calling it 'Horse of a Different Color,' " she said of her hat, which, if deemed a winner, would have marked Anderson's third hat title in eight years. Perhaps that would offset the inevitable chiropractic bill needed for carrying that on her head all afternoon.

For one person, being at opening day was a months-long goal on the road to recovery from cancer. Steve Nagler, who was part of the ABC Sports production crew that won multiple Eclipse Awards in the 1990's, was found to have throat cancer in January. After months of radiation, chemotheraphy, and two surgeries, Nagler was told by doctors last month that he was now cancer-free. Re-energized, he came out for the opener.

"It feels great to be here. It really does," Nagler said.

Thousands of others were also happy to be here. Along the grandstand apron, fans set up beach chairs and kicked back in their flip flops. In the turf club, fine dresses and millinery of the type worn at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day were the norm.

To accommodate turf club members, and attempt to keep that area relatively comfortable, a number of admissions were sold to the turf club, at $100 a pop. Another couple of thousand chose to pay $25 to be in a private party tent at the top of the stretch.

Del Mar has done a tremendous job turning Del Mar's opener into a newsworthy event. There were eight local television stations and five radio stations broadcasting live from the track on Wednesday.

Dado said he was hoping for a crowd near 40,000. It was a late-arriving crowd, no doubt impacted by huge traffic jams on nearby roads, but the atmosphere was electric as the day's first race neared. The horses for the first race were cheered when they came onto the track accompanied by Bing Crosby's ode to Del Mar, "Where the Turf Meets the Surf," being played over the loudspeaker.

Del Mar has a tradition of starting its first race on the main track, in front of the grandstand, and as the field neared the starting gate for the 1 1/16-mile race, the fans cheered again when the smooth, classy tones of track announcer Trevor Denman, sorely absent from this circuit since April, informed the fans that "the horses have reached the starting gate."

As the field loaded, the cheers gradually intensified, and when the gates opened, Denman said, "There's the roar from the Del Mar crowd as the 2006 Del Mar meet is under way."

A little more than 102 seconds later, Pao Com Ovo wore down Slew N Easy to win the meet's first race, making jockey Danny Sorenson and trainer A.C. Avila, at least for a half-hour, the meet leaders in their divisions.