07/17/2006 12:00AM

Opener means one thing: Let the festivities begin


Wednesday's opening day crowd at Del Mar will in some places resemble an audience at a sporting event, and in others a Mardi Gras gathering or a beach party. Sometimes, it will be all those things at once.

"Opening day is like spring break meets Royal Ascot," said horse owner Aron Wellman, 28.

The first of 43 days of racing at Del Mar is like no other event on the Southern California racing calendar. In a sport largely without seasons, Wednesday is an exception. There has been no live horse racing in the San Diego area since last September, when the 2005 meeting closed.

But racing is not necessarily the focus for Wednesday's expected crowd of 40,000. Just being there is as important in some San Diego social circles as correctly dissecting a pick three.

"The buzz is out, and that's the goal," said Mike Ernst, Del Mar's chief financial officer. "When you walk around town, people are talking about it. Some people call it the kickoff of summer."

The opening-day crowd is likely to be the largest of the meeting, with people packed in every nook of the course. Just getting a drink, finding a bite to eat, or placing a bet can often be a time-consuming challenge.

Media interest is high. The day starts with local television crews live on the scene, breathlessly reporting on what the "beautiful people" are wearing for the big day.

It's not all glamour, though. When the gates open, the grandstand apron will quickly fill with the lawn-chair brigade. By first post, the box-seat area will be packed with owners and trainers. The paddock will be packed with men and women of all ages, many doing more people watching than horse watching. So what if many in the crowd cannot tell the difference between a furlong and a fetlock. Just being there is what opening day is about.

And then there is the roar. When the gates open for the first race, which always starts in front of the grandstand, a spine-tingling cheer signals the start of the season.

"Opening day is mind-numbing," said Wellman, who owns the stakes-winning turf mare Three Degrees. "The racing is great, and to be down there at Del Mar, the energy is like none other. The people and the crowd is more of a spectacle than the racing and the gambling itself."

By his best guess, Wellman, the son of horse owners and Del Mar box-seat holders Michael and Cory Wellman, saw his first opening day as an infant in 1978. Aron Wellman was born in August 1977, just missing that year's opening day.

"I guess I was down at Del Mar a week later," he said.

The atmosphere of opening day has helped spur Del Mar's meeting to record levels in recent years. In the mid-1990's, opening day drew crowds of 28,000 to 30,000. Last year, the figure reached 40,046, the second-highest opening day in track history.

"It's turned into a social event," Ernst said. "It's taken on a life of its own."

Ernst said that to accommodate a massive opening day, customer-service training for employees has been expanded from a one-day to a three-day course.

"It's a big operational challenge," Ernst said. "There is no dress rehearsal for opening day."

To ease congestion in some areas, Del Mar has constructed a tented area on the west end of the track apron with food service and mutuel windows. The area has a view of the final turn and early stretch and is about 500 yards from the Pacific Ocean. The area will be open throughout the meeting.

The action on the track has led to strong business for opening day. Last year's all-sources handle on opening day was $14.9 million, with $4.6 million coming ontrack. It spurred a record-breaking meeting, with all-sources handle reaching $608 million.

The 2005 all-sources handle figure for the meeting was the sixth consecutive year of an increase and the fourth straight year the track set a record. This year, track officials are worried that bubble will burst.

"The key factor is whether field sizes hold up," Ernst said. "We hope to match last year or do better."

Such business details will not be on the minds of many people on Wednesday. They will be more concerned with the action surrounding a party at the horse races.