Updated on 09/15/2011 12:37PM

Swells, sunshine, and True Passion at Del Mar


DEL MAR, Calif. - There are certain opening-day traditions that make Del Mar special, none more so than the day's first race, which always is a two-turn, main-track race, starting right in front of the grandstand. The crowd, already fueled by sunshine and margaritas before the 2 p.m. Pacific post, begins buzzing as the first horse is loaded into the gate, and by the time the last horse is loaded, the whooping and hollering are at rock-concert level.

How appropriate then, that the final horse to be loaded into the gate for the day's first race is named True Passion, for race fans in Southern California - in the face of rolling blackouts, sky-high gasoline prices, a slowing economy, and a race schedule that drones on for 52 weeks a year - retain a visceral passion for racing at Del Mar. The fans will show their appreciation often this meet, but no time is more real or heartfelt than when the horses leave the gate for the first race, and a roar emanates from the top of the grandstand to the packed bar in the turf club.

And away they will go, for a 43-day meeting lasting through Sept. 5. This is the 62nd season at Del Mar, the track co-founder Bing Crosby nicknamed "Where the turf meets the surf." The Pacific Ocean, just a few furlongs away, can be seen from the grandstand, and the weather is typical for summers in Southern California, with high temperatures ranging from the mid-70's to the mid-80's, with little to no humidity.

Opening day is the highlight of the sporting social season for the San Diego swells, so the usual racetrack regulars are overwhelmed by men in slick suits, women in designer hats, and elderly men accompanied by their "nieces." The action is fast and furious. So is the racing.

Large fields are the norm for the first card, and the featured Oceanside Stakes, for 3-year-olds on the turf, has been split into divisions for the 13th consecutive year. A new turf course has been installed at Del Mar, and it gets plenty of use during the seven-week season. Saturday the turf course will be used for the first Grade 1 race of the meet, the $400,000 Ramona Handicap for older fillies and mares. Happyanunoit is among those scheduled for the Ramona. The Ramona was moved to the first part of the meet to serve as a prep for next month's Beverly D Handicap at Arlington Park.

The biggest grass race of the meet for male horses is the $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap, a Grade 1 event on July 28. With Bienamado passing that race to head straight to the Arlington Million, the horse to beat may be Designed for Luck, a sharp winner in his comeback race at Hollywood Park last month.

Del Mar has 27 stakes races - 19 graded - worth more than $6 million. The richest is the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 19, in which Skimming will try to win the race for the second straight year. Futural, who was disqualified from victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and Dubai World Cup winner Captain Steve also are pointing for the Pacific Classic.

Last year's Pacific Classic runner-up, Tiznow, is pointing for the $250,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sept. 2.

The best race of opening week will be Sunday's $200,000 Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap, in which champion sprinter Kona Gold will attempt to win the race for the second year in a row. He could be challenged by Caller One and Swept Overboard. Kona Gold's trainer, Bruce Headley has trained the meet's champion sprinter three times in the last four years. In addition to Kona Gold, Headley also had Son of a Pistol in 1998 and Lakota Brave in 1997.

The circuit's best female sprinter, Go Go, is expected to make her next start in the $150,000 Rancho Bernardo Handicap on Aug. 19 on the Pacific Classic undercard.

Gourmet Girl, a two-time Grade 1 winner this year, will attempt to solidify her credentials as one of the nation's leading older fillies or mares when she competes in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap Aug. 5.

Bob Baffert will be seeking his fifth consecutive training title at Del Mar. As usual, he is loaded with top 2-year-olds, but so is Eoin Harty, who trains for Godolphin Racing Inc. The pro tem leader of the 2-year-old colt division is Came Home, who won Sunday's Hollywood Juvenile Championship and is scheduled to make his lone Del Mar appearance in the $250,000 Del Mar Futurity on closing day, Sept. 5.

Victor Espinoza was last year's leading rider, but a different jockey has been atop the standings each of the last six years. If the rejuvenated Laffit Pincay Jr. wins this year, that will make seven.

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