07/18/2014 2:08PM

Hovdey: Opening day at Del Mar, with a horse racing backdrop

Benoit & Associates
Del Mar's opening day draws a large crowd ready to dress up and drink.

Opening day at Del Mar is to horse racing what Jackson Pollock is to Da Vinci. It is a madcap abstract of a sporting event, more like an annual hadj for upscale pilgrims, some 42,000 strong.

If you’ve been to opening day, you’ve seen the costumes and the accessories. You can imagine the hours spent on the selection of colors and styles, the agonizing decisions over ratio of material to skin, over razor settings for the perfect stubble, over bow tie, porkpie, sleeves rolled above or below the elbow, strapless, backless, or sideless. Or all of the above.

Early in the day, there are the traffic jams filled with tour buses, shuttles, and double-deckers from which impatient pilgrims spill, still hundreds of yards from the entrance to the track, and make their way down Via de la Valle to the meandering, dusty trail descending past the pony track.

The pilgrimage demands sacrifice, and so the women in the procession, forced by a male-dominated culture to wear severely angled wedge sandals, must proceed in mincing steps with one hand on their hats against the puffs of Pacific breeze and the other on the shoulder of a flat-shod companion.

Once inside the cathedral, the various rites unfold with a comforting familiarity. There is the half-hour in line for adult beverage, the standing in the plaza or the paddock amphitheater consuming the beverage, the second half-hour in line, this time purchasing two beverages to save time later for the half-hour standing in line for the women’s restroom. And so on through the afternoon.

After a lifetime of Del Mar opening days, this reporter is both mildly jaded and constantly amused. Del Mar management is taking credit for something, although I’m not sure what. It would seem that any organization with a handsome facility like Del Mar’s would be able to invite one and all to come dress up and drink on a particular day and then later to be able to say they were there, as a badge of social achievement. The fact that this day coincides with the beginning of a significant stretch of Thoroughbred racing seems quite beside the point.

It is galling, though, to watch Thoroughbred racing reduced to a novelty backdrop for a fancy dress party. The Kentucky Derby is the most blatant example, where the race has become almost a necessary nuisance to the surrounding corporate carnival. Casino racetracks have further institutionalized the idea that racing is nothing more than an excuse to do other kinds of business.

On the other hand – and there is always another hand – days like opening day are invaluable in advancing the flagging idea that the sport of Thoroughbred racing is an exciting endeavor, and that people should step up and become a part of the show.

Just ask Craig Bernick, who runs Glen Hill Farm for his grandfather, Leonard Lavin. The Glen Hill colors were on glorious display Thursday atop the 3-year-old colt Enterprising, who ran a ferocious final quarter to catch Argyle Cut at the line and win the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes at a mile on the grass.

“I was at Hollywood Park once to run in a graded stakes, and I was explaining to my guest how important it would be if the horse won the race,” Bernick said the next day. “But there was nobody there. He looked at me, and he didn’t really get it. But why would he?

“I’m not sure this is a widely held opinion,” he went on, “but I really think the most important thing for the sport is finding people who want to buy and own horses. To do that, they need to have a good ontrack experience. There’s no reason for them to be involved from an ownership standpoint if there’s a thousand people in the crowd.”

Bernick’s take on the chicken-and-egg conundrum holds water. Look at the tracks with casino-boosted pots, he says.

“They have good purses at Penn National, at Prairie Meadows, at Louisiana Downs,” he noted. “But they don’t have good horses, and they don’t have crowds. It’s good horses that will attract crowds, and crowds will attract owners.”

Bernick was otherwise occupied as a Chicago teenager in 1991 and 1992, when Glen Hill won consecutive runnings of the opening-day Oceanside with the Roberto colts Repriced and Major Impact. Their trainer was W.L. Proctor, who left behind a towering legacy of unflinching horsemanship along with two sons, Hap and Tom, to carry it on. For many years, Hap managed the Glen Hill breeding and early-training operation in Florida, while Tom handles Enterprising and the rest of the Glen Hill runners at a variety of tracks.

Enterprising is a son of Elusive Quality who tried to run his way into the classics this year with a string of good races out West. In the end, though, Proctor and Bernick determined that his future was on turf, and the best place to begin that future was at Del Mar, where the $300,000 Del Mar Derby awaits at the end of August.

After that, Enterprising can come back to Del Mar for the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. There won’t be 42,000 in the stands, but there will be a crowd.