07/22/2003 11:00PM

Opening day arrives and the livin' is easy


DEL MAR, Calif. - Julie Krone was riding for the first time at Del Mar on Wednesday, but she apparently got the memo on the appropriate attire. With a newly colored, short blonde hairdo, Krone arrived at the track with a casual shirt, shorts, and sandals, looking as though she could blend right in with the folks who set up beach chairs along the grandstand apron.

Opening day at Del Mar is unlike any other place. It has become a social outlet for the splendid folk of San Diego County, but far from the turf club, the atmosphere is a day at the beach. The closest thing to a rainy day fans will get here is when they watch the simulcasts from Saratoga.

"The scene reminds me a lot of Saratoga on opening day, when you walk in and see all the people," Krone said. "The only difference is the humidity and the beach breeze. And at Saratoga you have to dress up, but here you can walk around in flip flops.

"This does feel very familiar to me, because I've been working here the last two years," said Krone, who worked as an exercise rider for two summers at Del Mar. "And last year, I was ready to ride."

She made her comeback only a month later, and on Wednesday finally rode in her first Del Mar race, guiding 32-1 longshot Templar Knight to a third-place finish in the day's and meet's opener.

Just a few yards from the jockeys' room, the grandstand apron was filled with fans laying out in the sun in their beach chairs, reading racing periodicals and slathering on suntan lotion. George and Gina Randolph, a couple from the University Town Center area of San Diego, had found a strategic spot there, right by the finish line, but in an area covered by shade.

"We've lived here since 1989, and have been to opening day about 10 times," Gina Randolph said. "It's fun. I love coming here. I grew up in Australia. I remember my dad with the racing paper spread across the table on Saturday morning before he went to Randwick in Sydney, so racing has been part of my life for a long time."

Del Mar's lone promotion on opening day is a hat contest that encourages fans to wear oversized contraptions that most certainly delight chiropractors in the surrounding area on Thursday morning. Ken Killian of El Cajon got in the mood. He was standing near the paddock with a hat, shaped in the image of Bart Simpson, fashioned out of Starbucks coffee containers.

What gives him a bigger jolt, horses or coffee?

"They both get my heart going," Killian said, "but I think racing is bigger."

The chance to see live racing was what brought Joel Bercuson to the track two hours before the first race. A resident of nearby Solana Beach, Bercuson said he "can't get enthused" over offtrack betting.

"I love opening day because it's live racing, and beautiful women," said Bercuson, 59. "I think I've been to opening day 27 times."

At 1:50 p.m., a tape of "First Call" was played over the speaker system, followed by the traditional tape of Bing Crosby singing "Where the Turf Meets the Surf."

Del Mar always schedules its first race to begin in front of the grandstand, and the excitement began to percolate, especially when track commentator Trevor Denman noticed that "the horses are nearing the starting gate." The cheering grew louder as the runners were loaded into the gate for the 2 p.m. start, and when starter Gary Brinson sent them on their way, they were accompanied by a roar.

The scene may have shifted this week from Hollywood Park to Del Mar, but some things remained constant. Patrick Valenzuela, who was the leading rider at Hollywood Park and is favored to win his second straight Del Mar riding title this summer, won the opener with 6-5 favorite Tizawinner, who just did hold off a belated charge from Kedington. "It feels great," Valenzuela said.

Tizawinner had such a large lead at midstretch that Denman all but conceded the race to him, saying he was "moving like a winner." Valenzuela did what so many others love to do at this meet, listen closely to Denman. Maybe a little too closely.

"I've got to quit listening to Trevor," Valenzuela said, laughing.