07/16/2006 11:00PM

Del Mar: Colorful time-share

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Buckle up, folks. It is time once again for racing's most schizophrenic meeting, where a mild-mannered summertime county fair suddenly morphs into a muscle-bound seven weeks of high-stakes competition featuring some of the best Thoroughbreds in the land.

With its holiday niche and seaside appeal, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club would seem to have it made. It is a pleasure to say that management has not squandered these advantages. As the only major California racing operation not beholden to corporate strings pulled from afar, it is a refreshing throwback to the days when racing answered to its fans and its direct participants, rather than to distant shareholders or faceless investment funds.

And yet, Del Mar is never completely master of its own fate. The DMTC rents the place, basically, from a California state agricultural district association with roots in a far more agrarian age. As such, the Thoroughbred meet is only one of a number of attractions offered during the calendar year. At any given time, the property plays host to Cirque de Soleil, trade shows for baby products, a gay rodeo and a Christmas lighting extravaganza, not to mention the state's most popular county fair.

For instance, horsemen and seasonal workers on the job a few days before Wednesday's opener were lucky enough to catch the tail end of the latest Del Mar visit by the Crossroads of the West Gun Show, which filled the Jimmy Durante Pavilion with everything anyone would ever want or need when it comes to firearms, ammunition, or sly camouflage in these days of constant assault on second-amendment rights.

This reporter's personal favorite was the Windrunner Model 97, a .408 Chey-Tac caliber bad boy billed as a lightweight, tactical, seven-round magazine-fed rifle that could stop a Del Mar double-decker bus. At the same time, it was tempting to join the Laguna Mountain Black Powder Shooting Club, or linger at the action figure booth featuring Ken dolls dressed in the uniform of the Waffen SS, or empty this week's allowance at the Wholesale Ammo table.

(For the more politically inclined, there were bumper stickers giving succinct voice to even the most subtle philosophical stance, including "Keep Honking: I'm Reloading," "Execute Anti-War Demonstrators," "If at First You Don't Succeed, Try a Bigger Gun." and the always applicable "Is There Life After Death? Mess With This Truck and Find Out.")

Just across the narrow entrance road from the gun gang, a number of unarmed Thoroughbreds and their keepers were tiptoeing through mid-morning maneuvers while coming to grips with brand new terrain.

Two massive structures - hereafter christened Hangar X and Hangar Y - have sprung up where before there was once only a modest collection of low-slung, crumbling adobe and wooden buildings that served during the race meet as home to the horses of such trainers as Richard Mandella, Doug O'Neill, Dan Hendricks, Paddy Gallagher, and Chris Paasch.

Now they are housed in these two monuments, one of them air-conditioned, the other cooled by fans and a roofline breezeway. Each hangar - okay, "barn" - contains about 100 prefabricated stalls, and it is here you will find the likes of Lava Man and Brother Derek, as they prepare for their advertised Del Mar engagements.

Del Mar's management has been gradually upgrading its prehistoric stabling facilities over the past dozen years, with a number of new barns that have met with good reviews. These huge buildings, however, represent a quantum leap in a strange new direction. Are these the Del Mar barns of the future? The answer, happily, is no.

"The fair people said they needed an exhibit hall and we needed some barns, so this is what we got," explained Joe Harper, Del Mar's president. "They had to be multi-use, and for what they are they're good. The fair did say they needed buildings with a high, clear span, for convention kind of things. You could probably hover a helicopter in there."

There will be no headroom issues for the horses stabled in X and Y, although there was some nit-picking in the final inspections. The aisles between facing rows of stalls are obviously too narrow. A number of the metal stall doors were installed opening outward instead of inward (they were quickly reset). Here and there the nasty end of an eye-screw was exposed through a wooden panel. The washracks in Big X faced the clubhouse turn of the racetrack, which should make for some entertaining scenes. And the common area reserved for tow-rings seemed cramped, especially where 200 horses will need cooling out.

It must be noted, once again, that when something is built on the Del Mar fairgrounds property, it is almost always paid for by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. But if it is not strictly dedicated to racing purposes, the racing people must live with its multiple uses and sometimes even its design. Which is why Harper had no say when the artist known as Wyland was commissioned to decorate the east side of Hangar Y with one of his studies in marine-life portraiture - in this case a pair of cavorting humpback whales in oranges and greens - to go along with his blue whale silhouette crowning the infield video screen.

"It's like a stepchild getting a tattoo - what can you do about it?" Harper said with a shrug. "I'm just a tenant. And the whales are okay. At least they're not facing the grandstand."

Ah, but they can be seen, big as life, from both the north- and southbound lanes of Interstate 5. Welcome to Sea World.