07/21/2010 8:52PM

Summertime's off and running at Del Mar

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The economy is stagnant, the state's budget ledger is blood-red, and racing in California is going through a rough patch. Yet when it comes to opening-day at Del Mar, all of that matters not a whit.

A boisterous crowd ready to party for seven weeks stuffed itself into Del Mar for opening day on Wednesday, under overcast skies that kept the temperature in the upper 60s. The grandstand was packed from the top of the stretch through the grandstand, and on up into the turf club, where the fashion-conscious came for the social event of the summer in San Diego County.

Last year, a single-day record crowd of 44,907 turned out for opening day, and as the first race was about to be run at 2 p.m. Pacific time on Wednesday, the signs were encouraging for another blockbuster afternoon.

"As of right now, we're right where we were at this time last year," said Michael Ernst, Del Mar's executive vice-president of finance, and chief financial officer. "We're right on pace with last year's numbers. They just have to keep coming in."

Patrons who arrived from Los Angeles and Orange counties via Amtrak said the train was standing-room only, and the line of cars snaking into the parking lot was moving at a crawl well past the running of the second race.

Once inside, all manner of people and fashion were on display, ranging from shorts and beachwear in the grandstand to fine dresses and elegant hats in the turf club. Numerous fans entered the traditional opening-day hat contest, and some of the contraptions were so complex that chiropractors would be wise to hand out business cards here for next-day service.

A number of professional football players were in attendance, including quarterbacks Kyle Boller of the Oakland Raiders and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, who gathered in the winner's circle after the third race, and San Diego Chargers defensive end Shawne Merriman and defensive back Quentin Jammer.

The ground-level area ringing the paddock was lined five-deep as the horses arrived for the first race, and the back porches on floors two through six, which overlook the paddock, were crowded with onlookers.

"Isn't this great?" said Mark Verge, a horse owner from West Los Angeles who said he has been coming to opening day at Del Mar with his best friend, trainer Doug O'Neill, "since we were 13."

"We used to take the Greyhound bus here," Verge said.

"Opening day at Del Mar, there's nothing like it," said Steve Rothblum, a former trainer who now does equine consulting, as he surveyed the paddock.

The first race of the meet always starts in front of the grandstand, affording fans the opportunity to send the meeting off with a giant cheer, a happening acknowledged in his call of the one-mile race by Trevor Denman, the game-changing track announcer who has been here every summer since 1984.

Denman is wildly popular with the locals, who were yelling his name toward the announcer's booth before the races began, their long, dark nightmare of not hearing him call races on this circuit for more than three months finally over.

Denman's smooth observations were spot-on in the opener on the Polytrack main track, picking up on the trouble encountered by 5-2 second choice Joe Carl as 4-1 shot North Fork, trained by Eric Kruljac, went on to win under jockey Victor Espinoza, who came back and swept the daily double by capturing the second race, on turf.

"The track is good," Espinoza said after the first race. "I've worked a couple of horses the last couple of days. It's a lot better than last year. And I'm not just saying that because I won the race."

Richard Tedesco has taken over as this track's superintendent, replacing Steve Wood.

North Fork was returning from a 17-month layoff. He was bred, and is owned, by former trainer Jerry Dutton. Though retired and living in Idaho, Dutton and his wife, Barbara, were here for opening day and had plenty to toast after winning the first race of the meet.

"Jerry told me he'd be ready," Kruljac said. "When he came in to me a few weeks ago, I had my doubts, but he worked phenomenally. I think you're going to have to save horses over this track. Victor gave him a perfect ride."

Wednesday was only the first of 37 days of the meeting. It might prove a preview of coming attractions. It might prove an anomaly. For one day, at least, the troubles of Southern California racing seemed far, far away.

"This town was dead all week," said Jim Pegram, the agent for jockey Martin Garcia. "And today, it exploded."