07/12/2012 1:15PM

Del Mar's greatest hits: The unforgettable horses and moments

Bing Crosby (right), along with actor Pat O’Brien, helped launch horse racing at Del Mar in 1937. The seaside track will open for its 73rd season Wednesday, July 18.

In 1937, FDR, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Hirohito, and Chamberlain were the world leaders. Jack Nicholson and Colin Powell were born. The blimp known as the Hindenberg had gone down, and the aviatrix Amelia Earhart was lost at sea. Mailing a letter cost three cents, filling the gas tank ran about a buck. And Bing Crosby? Well, he was 39, hadn’t sung “White Christmas” yet, and hadn’t made his first “Road” picture. But he was a star. On the side, he liked golf and horses and pumped his money in both directions.

Crosby, who had a place in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., put up $3,000 to sponsor a golf tournament at a nearby club. His other 1937 investment, in the racing lease that launched Del Mar, was much more dear, much less transient. “Where the turf meets the surf,” from the song, wouldn’t kick in until later. Crosby, just as turgid as the next guy, first called his Del Mar “the pretty little hippodrome by the sea.” Bing dipped into Hollywood and put Pat O’Brien, Laurel and Hardy, and Gary Cooper on his board of directors, but when the contractor said he needed another $600,000 to finish the grandstand, only O’Brien and Crosby reached for their wallets. There were reports that they borrowed on their life insurance to raise the money.

Seventy-five years on, Del Mar is preparing for its 73rd season. After World War II got in the way, the track has been unstoppable. Del Mar has gone from a summertime divertissement on the California racing calendar to the main spoke in the wheel. Santa Anita? Life in Stronachland has been one revival after another, none of them realistic or lasting. Hollywood Park? It’s still on life support, even though promises of its closing were greatly exaggerated. Bay Meadows? R.I.P. Golden Gate Fields? Northern California’s last fragile outpost.

Del Mar is the Old Man River, a place that keeps rolling along. It’s not bullet-proof − what in racing is? − but it’s close. Two of the last three years, the track has flirted with average daily crowds of 18,000. Before Crosby sold out in 1946 (“There was a lot of work and a lot of politics involved, and I just didn’t have the time for it,” he once told Sports Illustrated), the turnstiles were lucky to do half of that. Sure, live attendance is hardly part of the business plan anymore, but it’s heartening to drive Route 5 on a Thursday afternoon, glance over at Del Mar, and not see too many people disguised as empty seats.

Seventy-five years after Del Mar began, the first inkling was to pigeonhole the 10 best races that have ever been run there. But that was too easy, and besides, it’s been done. A more challenging exercise was to list the 10 best horses to ever run there. Some of the horses in my top 10 might have saved their best performances for other tracks, but they impacted Del Mar in an eye-catching way that still got them on the list.

This exercise was not without snares. What do you do with Tiznow, twice a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and once a Horse of the Year? He was second to Skimming, in the Pacific Classic, in his only Del Mar start. He doesn’t make the cut. What about Point Given? Another Horse of the Year, he broke his maiden at Del Mar, although it took him two starts. But he never ran there in a race that mattered. Sorry, but it’s outski.

There are others who did all right after they got away from Del Mar. Charismatic, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Horse of the Year, took six races to break his maiden, two of the losses coming at Del Mar. A.P. Indy, a Horse of the Year, was fourth against maidens at Del Mar in his debut. Lady’s Secret, another Horse of the Year, ran often and everywhere, beat only two horses in a minor 2-year-old stake at Del Mar, and never found her way back there again. Ferdinand, a Derby winner and Horse of the Year, was eighth against maidens and won an ungraded stake. Next time, maybe. Ancient Title won the Del Mar Handicap, and just missed. He would be No. 11 on the list.

So who did make the list?

MORE: Bill Christine's top 10 memorable moments in Del Mar history

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10. How Now

How who? Only two horses won five stakes at Del Mar in their lifetime. Flawlessly was the other. How Now won both sprinting and around two turns. In two years, 1957-58, the Texas-bred gelding won the Bing Crosby twice and the Del Mar and San Diego Handicaps. His other win came in the 1960 Del Mar Handicap, when he was a 7-year-old. They’ve run the Del Mar Handicap 72 times, and only four 7-year-olds have won it. Cecil Jolley, who beat Round Table with Sir William in the 1957 Santa Anita Derby, trained How Now. Ray York, Bill Harmatz and Eddie Burns rode him

9. Kotashaan

Is there a more forgotten Horse of the Year? In 1993, Kotashaan won the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and Bertrando was upended by the 133-1 Arcangues in the Classic, sending most of the voters in the direction of trainer Richard Mandella’s grass horse. A grass horse hasn’t won Horse of the Year since. At Del Mar that year, Kotashaan easily won the Eddie Read Handicap, then a month later, in the Del Mar Handicap, he lost by a nose to Luazur, who had a seven-pound pull in the weights.

8. Cigar

This is the only horse on the list who didn’t win a stakes at Del Mar. As a 3-year-old in 1993, Cigar was a mediocre grass horse in the barn of Alex Hassinger Jr. He won an allowance race at Del Mar, then was beaten on grass there two weeks later, the start of an eight-race losing streak. By the time Cigar got back to Del Mar, he was 6, now being trained by Bill Mott, and only ate grass. He had won 16 straight, matching Citation’s streak. But in the Pacific Classic, after chasing Siphon through a 1:09 1/5 first six furlongs, Cigar was overtaken by Siphon’s 39-1 stablemate, Dare and Go. The crowd of 44,181 was a Del Mar record. Cigar makes the list because he was an impact horse, the biggest at Del Mar since Seabiscuit.

7. Silver Charm

Three races before Cigar’s shocking upset, a field of eight maidens ran five furlongs for a $37,000 purse at Del Mar. One of them was Silver Charm, making his first career start for trainer Bob Baffert and his go-to clients, Bob and Beverly Lewis. Silver Charm couldn’t hold the lead and finished second, outrun by the Wayne Lukas-trained Deeds Not Words. Two weeks later, Silver Charm beat maidens, and on closing day he won the Del Mar Futurity. A Derby and a Preakness and a Dubai World Cup later, Silver Charm was back at Del Mar at 4, but at 30 cents on the dollar he finished last in a five-horse field in the San Diego Handicap. Does Deeds Not Words ring a bell? He was the lightning rod at the Silver Charm Derby, when Lukas, after saying he wouldn’t have a runner, tossed him into the field at the last minute. Deeds Not Words, who had run only four times and lost his previous start by 11 1/2 lengths, finished last, beaten by 25 lengths.

6. Flawlessly

In going 5 for 5 on the grass at Del Mar, future Hall of Famer Flawlessly won the San Clemente Handicap and the Del Mar Oaks at 3 and the Ramona Handicap (now the John Mabee Stakes) the next three years. Chris McCarron rode her all five times. Flawlessly, who was a bleeder, began her career in New York with Rick Dutrow, but her owners, Louis and Patrice Wolfson, eventually sent her to Charlie Whittingham in California, where she could be treated with the diuretic Lasix. Her record in California: 18 starts, 12 wins, 3 seconds, 2 thirds.

5. Azeri

Only the third filly to be voted Horse of the Year, Azeri by rights could have been one that Allen Paulson let get away. Her dam, Zodiac Miss, was an Australian sprinter who took nobody’s breath away. Azeri was a late foal, dropped by Zodiac Miss four days after Real Quiet won the 1998 Kentucky Derby. But Paulson got Azeri back, after she went through the sales ring at Keeneland for $110,000, and then she became about as much a hometown horse as Del Mar could get. Paulson lived near Del Mar, and her trainer during the 2002 Horse of the Year season was Laura de Seroux, who was stabled at the San Luis Rey Downs training center, about 25 miles north of the track. Paulson didn’t live long enough to see Azeri run. She put together an 11-race winning streak that included two runnings of the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap. Both were no-contests, five-horse fields that led to win-place betting only and minus pools. Azeri’s win prices were $2.20 and $2.60. “There was quite a bit of drama attached (to the race),” the Los Angeles Times wrote after one running of the Hirsch. “But then the gates opened.”

4. Native Diver

Native Diver’s heart weighed about 11 pounds, which was 2 to 4 pounds above average. He ran from 1961 through 1967, becoming California’s first equine millionaire, winning the Hollywood Gold Cup three times. Eight of his 81 career starts came at Del Mar, where he won the San Diego Handicap three straight years. The third win, in 1965, came under an impost of 131 pounds. In Native Diver’s last race, the 8-year-old gelding won the 1967 Del Mar Handicap while carrying 130 pounds. After the race, jockey Jerry Lambert had a premonition. “He might be getting old at that,” Lambert said. “He wanted to go home to his barn instead of going back to the winner’s circle. I had to coax him a little bit to get him to go there.” Nine days later, Native Diver was dead. The Diver suffered colic on the van ride from Del Mar to Bay Meadows, and surgeons at the University of California at Davis were unable to save him.

3. Best Pal

It was John Mabee’s idea that Del Mar needed a signature race, and the $1 million Pacific Classic was the result. The inaugural running in 1991 set up perfectly for Best Pal, who had won the Swaps at Hollywood Park after the Derby and a fifth-place finish in the Preakness. Mabee, as was his style, switched trainers, taking Best Pal from Ian Jory and sending him to Gary Jones. Jones sweated through two pre-Pacific Classic workouts – a too-fast five furlongs when a stirrup broke and a two-slow six furlongs – and Best Pal, at 9-2, won by one length. Like some fine wines, Best Pal didn’t travel well; he was winless in seven races outside California. Del Mar was his Shangri-La: He also won the Del Mar Futurity and two other races there before he turned 3. The best he could do, however, was a third and a second in subsequent Pacific Classics.

2. Zenyatta

An unlikely candidate to even run on the Polytrack at Del Mar, Zenyatta did Azeri one better when she won the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes three straight years. The third win, in 2010, was her 18th in a row, the next-to-last win in a 19-win, one-loss career. In 2006, when the California Horse Racing Board ordered most of the tracks in the state to install synthetic surfaces, owner Jerry Moss was the only commissioner not to vote in favor. His trainer, John Shirreffs, eschewed synthetics, once likening them to running on Velcro. But Shirreffs shipped Zenyatta from her Hollywood Park base all three times, and although she was 3-5 or less for every race, none was easy. She won the last two by a head and a neck. After Zenyatta made up seven lengths to win the 2010 Hirsch, the track announcer Trevor Denman shouted: “She doesn’t win by far, but it’s the way she wins! She gives you goosebumps!”

1. Seabiscuit

All but one of Seabiscuit’s 89 races was run away from Del Mar. In that one race, Seabiscuit beat only one horse. But it was Bing Crosby’s co-owned Ligaroti, in one of the most famous match races ever run. Seabiscuit over War Admiral, run a couple of months later, was a match race for the country; Seabiscuit-Ligaroti was a wakeup call that there was another major track in California. Seabiscuit, conceding 15 pounds, beat Ligaroti by a nose, and afterward the stewards suspended both jockeys for the rest of the meet because of the punching and counterpunching through the stretch. In 1983, I interviewed Spec Richardson, who had ridden Ligaroti. “We needed 15 pounds to come close,” he said, “but (George) Woolf started it. He hit my horse across the nose with his whip five or six times. I tried to grab his whip to stop him. Just before we got to the wire, Woolf reached over and grabbed my horse’s bridle, close to the bit. If there had been a film patrol, I would have been a cinch to win on a disqualification.” Woolf, who died following a spill at Santa Anita in 1946, was tight-lipped about the controversy, but grainy footage of the donnybrook suggested that Richardson could have been the intimidator. What bugged Richardson, 45 years later, was that Woolf had agreed to “save” (split the $2,500 commission the winning jockey was to receive), and then reneged. “He didn’t want to give me anything at first,” Richardson said. “But I bawled him out and he finally gave me a couple hundred bucks.”

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