07/19/2005 11:00PM

Sun, fun, and a 10-pound hat

Spurred on by the roar of the crowd, the horses leave the gate for the first race of the 2005 Del Mar meeting, which was won by the 17-1 longshot Rude Behavior (6).

DEL MAR, Calif. - For 45 weeks a year, Les Kepics blends into the background as part of the ensemble band Haute Chili, playing at corporate functions all over the country. But for seven weeks each summer at Del Mar, the Poway, Calif., resident is front and center, the one who lets everyone know that the games are about to begin.

On opening day Wednesday at Del Mar, Kepics made his way onto the main track, blew into his shiny, gold B-flat trumpet, and belted out the familiar notes of "First Call," to the delight of the crowd.

Kepics gets to take the first race off, because the track insists on playing a prerecorded version of "First Call," followed by Bing Crosby's signature song, "Where the Turf Meets the Surf." Del Mar had 45 weeks to prepare, yet on Wednesday "First Call" was never heard before the first race, and the sound system faintly played Crosby's song until being properly turned up for the last few lines.

Kepics took matters into his own hands and was heard loud and clear for the second race.

"It's a buzz of energy, the beginning of the party," said Kepics, who has been the trumpeter - it seems incongruous to call him a bugler - at Del Mar since 1985. "You can definitely sense the energy of the crowd."

The usual potpourri of the human spirit was at Del Mar on Wednesday. On the apron in front of the grandstand, fans dressed in shorts and T-shirts cooled their heels in beach chairs while cooling their thirst with a beer, or three. In the turf club, women wore fine dresses and fancy hats, while men paraded with linen suits. There was a Dixieland jazz band near the paddock, and local radio and television stations were doing live broadcasts.

Behind the grandstand, men and women lined up to enter the four categories for Del Mar's traditional opening-day "One and Only Truly Fabulous Hat Contest." Denna Holman, 34, had an original creation: an oversized, two-tiered faux cake with a mechanical horse dressed like a stripper popping out of the top. She said the whole contraption weighed 10 pounds.

"My husband and I have been working on it for about three months," said Holman, a resident of Lake Forest, Calif., who said she attends the races most every weekend. "My husband did the motor for the horse. I'm just the guinea pig, let's be honest."

Holman was hoping to win a spa package, which hopefully included chiropractic work.

The crowd began to buzz as the horses neared the gate for the first race, which started in front of the stands at the sixteenth pole. Track commentator Trevor Denman, whose classy, soothing tones have been sorely missed from this circuit for the past three months, was practically drowned out when the horses sprang from the gate.

Denman acknowledged the crowd, saying, "There's the roar from the Del Mar crowd. The 2005 meet is under way."

A little more than 106 seconds later, 17-1 shot Rude Behavior crossed the wire first under jockey Rene Douglas.

"I told everyone I'm the leading trainer of the meet - for 30 minutes," joked trainer Eddie Truman.

Kepics then was ready to head to the track for the remaining eight races, and was contemplating what song to use to serenade the crowd before the final race, which Kepics does every day.

"Opening day, I usually play 'In the Mood,' " he said. "I usually decide what to play that day. When Bob Hope died, I played 'Thanks for the Memories.' When Burt Bacharach is at the track, or if it rains, I'll play 'Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head.' "

This day, opening day on a sun-kissed afternoon at a racetrack a few furlongs from the beach, Kepics might have wanted to play "Happy Days Are Here Again."