07/18/2012 5:38PM

Del Mar opens with a bang

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Benoit & Associates
Chantal Sutherland returns a winner aboard Miss Calfornia in the opening race of the Del Mar meeting.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Chivalry is not dead. It was ladies first at Del Mar on Wednesday, when jockey Chantal Sutherland and trainer Kristin Mulhall joined forces to win the first race of the meet with Miss California as this seaside track’s 75th anniversary season got under way to a rip-roaring start.

The grandstand and apron were jammed from one end to the other long before the day’s first race, and Sutherland said the noise from the crowd could be heard as the first-race field went around the far turn.

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“You could hear it at the three-eighths pole pretty good,” Sutherland said. “It was like an echo, and then - boom.”

Sutherland is literally the face of Del Mar, the track having focused its marketing campaign for this meet around the fan favorite.

“Having you win, that’s just good marketing,” Craig Dado, Del Mar’s senior vice president of  marketing, joked with Sutherland while giving her a congratulatory hug in the winner’s circle.

Del Mar set a record of 46,588 on opening day last year, the seventh straight year the opening-day crowd topped 40,000, and it appeared well on its way to another blockbuster opener on Wednesday.

“It shows it can be done,” owner Arnold Zetcher said, admiring a scene that saw fans gazing at the paddock from terraces all on every floor of the grandstand.

The weather was ideal, with a few high clouds and a cool breeze wafting in from the nearby Pacific Ocean.

The drumbeats started early. Every local television station was on hand, as were several radio stations. And long before the first race, the paddock was filled.

“Lot of owners in this race,” cracked trainer Ben Cecil, who had one of the eight runners in the opener.

Scores of people merely wandered in to the paddock, practicing the time-honored virtues of the racetrack wave, though one young woman was stopped by a security guard and told to leave her champagne split on an adjacent retaining wall.

For others, the partying had started far earlier. Around 10 a.m., shortly after watching morning workouts, noted clocker Gary Young saw a fan being arrested for public intoxication.

There were many people who had sober tastes, with high fashion on display, but opening day is also a chance for people to practice dressing up early for Halloween. Two 30-something men, both more than six feet tall, wore jockeys silks and ill-fitting jockey helmets, and tried to crash the group jockey photo in the paddock that Del Mar takes 30 minutes before the opener.

About 10 minutes before the first race, the horses made their way onto the track, and a recording of track co-founder Bing Crosby’s signature tune, “Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” was played over the loudspeakers.

Opening day is a chance for many people to renew acquaintances that lay dormant for 45 weeks. For many racing fans in this area, that meant paying homage to Trevor Denman, who is celebrating his 29th season here as track announcer. When Denman got on the public address system an hour before the first race, dozens of fans along the grandstand let out a cheer and then started shouting his name.

Denman has the perfect temperament for a track announcer, combining a classy, accurate delivery where he accentuates the proceedings, but never tries to make himself the focal point. Per his custom, he acknowledged the fans when the gates opened for the first race, saying, “There’s the roar from the huge opening-day Del Mar crowd.”

At about that time, John Lopez was breathing easier. Lopez, a long-time member of the starting gate crew, has been promoted to head starter this summer because Gary Brinson is taking the summer off to be with his ailing father. The first race was at 1 1/16 miles, starting in front of the grandstand, so Lopez was front and center.

“It went pretty good,” Lopez said right after the race. “It’s just a different feeling. We got the first one done. It was fun. It was great.”

Sutherland felt the same way. For a brief time, she was the meet’s leading rider.

“One day you’re up, the next day you’re gum on the bottom of the shoe,” she said. “This is such a happy place. You’ve got to enjoy it. Life’s tough enough.”