07/21/2004 11:00PM

Del Mar - the sun, the sea, the Mabee


DEL MAR, Calif. - The black stretch Hummer limousine blocking the perimeter road behind the mile and one-quarter chute of the Del Mar main track refused to budge. The windows were tinted. The brake lights were lit. And somewhere, deep inside, there was probably a driver, or a pilot, depending upon the skills required to operate such a large conveyance.

There was no use fighting it, though, because Hummers rule, especially on opening day at Del Mar, where conspicuous consumption and excessive behavior are both accommodated and encouraged.

This time around, 39,346 souls packed into the tiered stands and spilled onto the sunny verandas, swigging big-necked, plastic bottles of beer and refreshing Del Marys, a familiar concoction of vodka, tomato juice, spices, and sunblock.

It was a little weird, though, because in the past the opening day crowd has been a celebration of diversity, with multicultural denizens of both North and South San Diego County coming together in peace and harmony for an exciting afternoon of Thoroughbred sport.

This time around, the fans in attendance seemed to be split evenly between those who looked and dressed like Nicole Richie, and those who did not. The volatile combination of liquor, flesh, winners, and losers led to a predictable array of photo ops and fistfights. But that's okay. Del Mar's opening day has become nothing less than a mini Mardi Gras, with just about everything offered short of the tossing beads and aftermath ritual of hosing down the streets.

Oops. Don't mention water hoses around Del Mar brass for a few days. Seems an order was given to pressure wash the big-screen video board in preparation for the opener, a self-inflicted electrical wound that rendered the display of races unwatchable for most of the day, unless you like cubist paintings.

"I told everyone I was in charge of only the bottom third of the screen, and that was looking okay," said an exasperated Joe Harper, Del Mar's president. "At least it was drying out by the end of the day."

On opening day, the nine races are pretty much rumors in the distance, serving as pretty backdrops to the more pressing concerns of being on display. Between the lines, though, it was dangerous business as usual, and for Jose Valdivia, winning races for trainers Paddy Gallagher and Ruben Cardenas was a sweet way to get things rolling. Wiseguys were congratulating him on being leading rider.

"Except that there were two other guys who won two races as well," Valdivia said, referring to Corey Nakatani and David Flores, who each took a division of the Oceanside Stakes.

Valdivia should be in the thick of things on Saturday aboard Moscow Burning in the $400,000 John C. Mabee Handicap, the premier race of the summer for older fillies and mares on the grass. At 1 1/8 miles, the Mabee - formerly the Ramona - has been won in the past by female grass champions Possibly Perfect, Brown Bess, and Flawlessly.

The 2004 field will have to try hard to top last year's thriller, when Megahertz got up to beat Golden Apples, Dublino, and Tates Creek, who finished in a triple dead heat for second.

As hunch plays go, this year's running rightfully should have been won by Fun House, the 5-year-old daughter of Prized who took the Buena Vista Handicap earlier this year at Santa Anita. She is not to be confused with Fun House, the daughter of The Doge, bred and owned by C.V. Whitney and foaled in 1958, then victorious in the 1962 edition of the Ramona. For historical context, Del Mar's opening-day attendance in 1962 was 8,248.

Ron McAnally decided to keep the newer Fun House in the barn, while division leader Megahertz is also passing the race. The Mabee did manage to attract Beverly Hills winner Light Jig - like Megahertz, trained by Bobby Frankel - as well as Yellow Ribbon runner-up Musical Chimes, who is back with her crowd after facing males last time out in the Whittingham Memorial.

Moscow Burning has carried the California breeding banner far and wide this year, competing in Florida and New York in addition to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Last May, Moscow Burning became the first Cal-bred to win a major New York event since Tiznow's 2001 Breeders' Cup Classic when she took the Sheepshead Bay Handicap at 11 furlongs on the Belmont turf.

"That was a brilliant race," said Jim Cassidy, who trains Moscow Burning. "But I knew she loved New York the minute we got there."

In her last race, Moscow Burning led late in the 10-furlong Beverly Hills at Hollywood before Light Jig caught her to win by a length. Cassidy was dazzled by the winner that day, but he's willing to try her again over a layout that offers a different challenge.

"Light Jig won like a monster," Cassidy said of the likely Mabee favorite. "But Del Mar is a pretty sharp course. I'm not sure how much speed is in this field, but I'm thinking we just might have to go a little early. Still, at a mile and one-eighth, they don't let you get away too far."