07/20/2004 11:00PM

Meet starts with bang

Fun was the name of the game on opening day at Del Mar. A large crowd filled the paddock prior to the first race.

DEL MAR, Calif. - There were 83 groups listed in Del Mar's official program as having functions on Wednesday's opening-day card. The American Plastics Council, surprisingly, was not among them. Yet everywhere you turned Wednesday at Del Mar, there were amazing things being done with plastics, ranging from contraptions - liberally labeled hats - atop fans' heads, to adult versions of show and tell.

Nothing on the Southern California calendar compares to Del Mar's opening day. It's one part Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs, with many fans dressing to impress with fine clothes and millinery, and another part the bacchanalia of Club Med. The last days of Rome could not have been as decadent.

At the western edge of the grandstand, near the Plaza de Mexico, contestants in the annual "One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest" were lining up to enter the various categories. Standing to the side, drinking a beer and enjoying the view, were two wide-eyed Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, both of whom were attending the races for the first time.

"Oh, my, God," said Cpl. Brian Fackler as the fans paraded by. He was joined by Cpl. Mark O'Leary.

"We are part of a group of about 20 who are doing something in the winner's circle after one of the races," Fackler said. "We got guilt-tripped into coming here, but we're staying now."

The hats ran the gamut, from classy to tacky. One creative design included a plastic horse head, flowers, and American flags. It was worn by Denise Viotto-Ruggiero of San Diego, who had in her right hand an electronic device that controlled the horse's tongue sticking out.

"This is the first time I've been to opening day," Viotto-Ruggiero said. "I've been to the races before, but not on opening day. We got tickets, my parents are in town from New York, and we said, let's go."

Lynette Cason of Vista, Calif., was inspired by this year's Triple Crown. She wore a hat that had a hand-painted scene of the twin spires of Churchill Downs. A plastic horse, wearing number 15, was attached to the hat, and the rider was painted with an uncanny replica of the Someday Farms silks of Roy and Pat Chapman, the owners of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones.

"It's Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby," said Cason, who said the artwork was done by her friend Paul Lawrence.

The large crowd, which appeared smaller than last year's record opener of 40,682, enjoyed pleasant weather - partly cloudy skies, a light breeze off the ocean, and a high temperature of 78 degrees. At 1:50, the horses for the first race came on the track, greeted by Bing Crosby's signature song, "Where the Turf Meets the Surf." Ten minutes later, the runners for the first race broke from the gate, set just in front of the stands for a 1 1/16-mile race.

"There's the roar from the crowd," said track announcer Trevor Denman. "The season is under way."