07/20/2011 5:31PM

Del Mar beach party the place to be by the sea

Benoit & Associates
Colorful hats and outfits provide an air of festivity among the opening-day revelers.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Jockey Patrick Valenzuela first came to Del Mar as a fresh-faced, 16-year-old apprentice, and though both he and Del Mar have matured in the three decades since, both retained their youthful enthusiasm on opening day on Wednesday.

"It's awesome. There's nothing like this," Valenzuela said, surveying a paddock that was already packed a half-hour before the first race. "It's like Christmas all over again. This is such a great day. You feed off the energy."

The energy could have powered a small city. Opening day at Del Mar is one of the highlights of the Southern California racing calendar, but it has become the social event of the summer here in San Diego County. Attendees who don't know a trifecta from a gelding come out once a year to see and been seen, then disappear to the next big thing, and mingle with regular racegoers who get a renewed sense of excitement seeing a grandstand overflowing with people.

"It feels like I won a stakes race," said jockey Joe Talamo, who became the meet's leading rider when he captured the first race aboard Price ($10.40). "The crowd is amazing."

The victory by Price was the first of 2011, and in nearly a full year, for trainer Howie Zucker.

"We love this place," Zucker exclaimed as he headed to the winner's circle.

Thousands of others love it, too. More than 40,000 fans have attended opening day at Del Mar every year beginning in 2005, including a Del Mar all-time single-day record of 45,309 last year, and the early numbers Wednesday were similarly encouraging. The stands were buzzing long before the day's first race, at 2 p.m. Pacific, and even well after the first race, cars were still inching their way along Via de la Valle and then slowly making their way down the Solana exit access road at the northern edge of the property.

Among those fired up for the opener was Trevor Denman, who since his debut in the United States nearly three decades ago has revolutionized the way races are called, making him one of the most influential figures in that profession. Denman is off once Santa Anita ends in April, and his return each summer is popular with local fans, some of whom stand along the apron before the first race, turn toward his booth, and shout his first name.

Denman does his part to whip the crowd into a lather before the opener. Denman notified the crowd that the field was nearing the gate for the one-mile race, right in front of the grandstand, announced each runner's name as they entered the gate, and acknowledged the giant cheer that went up when starter Gary Brinson dispatched the field.

"There's the huge roar from the Del Mar crowd," Denman said. "The Del Mar 2011 meet is under way."

In truth, though, the party can be counted down with the certainty of a metronome. Fans already were lined up outside the admission gates more than three hours before the first race, and those with beach chairs make a mad dash for the apron when the gates open at 11:30 a.m. In the Plaza de Mexico area behind the grandstand, an opening-day hats contest draws all manner of headgear, from elegant wares similar to what's seen at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, to straw hats of 20-somethings rockin' their best Justin Timberlake impressions.

Many women dress in their finest summer outfits, with heels that have to reward local podiatrists in subsequent days. Tattoos are common. On the guys, too.

The meet's jockeys gather for a team photo in the paddock a half-hour before the first race, and then 20 minutes later, the runners in the first race head to the track, serenaded by track co-founder Bing Crosby's signature tune, "Where the Turf Meets the Surf."

As if on cue, what had been a mostly cloudy, humid day yielded to clearing skies. The ocean breeze kicked up, and everyone here, like Valenzuela, knew they would not want to be anywhere else.