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May 20, 2024

Fast Track

By Lydia Manx

My life has pretty much revolved around traffic and avoiding traffic as long as I can remember. Being born in Los Angeles I spent the first ten years of my life bopping in the backseat with my siblings going to and from holiday and family events on the crazed highways and streets throughout the City of Angels and her sister towns. I think my first exposure to swearing was being behind a family driver in traffic. (I knew better than to repeat those words.) When we moved down to San Diego I noticed right away there was less traffic and also less freeways too. At age ten I thought that was a good thing.

We moved to the town of Del Mar. Where the surf meets the turf in old Del Mar -- lines to a jingle, and it was on license plate holders, captivating my young eyes. I hadn't a clue what that meant.

Walking along the beach in the evenings as a family, we would often see Desi Arnaz and Jimmy Durante during the summer. They both were big fans of the track. As a kid it meant little to me. Then I started noticing that the traffic got really bad in the middle of the summer. I would hear more and more of those nasty words. Racing season was met with a groan by adults. Plans for parties and outings were scheduled around the track. I turned sixteen and got my driver's license. Soon I was practicing yelling at the tourists while swerving to avoid their cars parked erratically around my town.

Every now and then I get invited to the track. I am not a big gambler, as I have said in a previous story, and I really am not a fan of huge crowds of insane folks. But I succumbed this year for a few reasons. One, my dad asked me if I wanted to go, and I figured it would be fun to get out with dad (not going to the doctors for a change). Two, the tickets were free, not a bad thing, and Dad said we didn't have to stay the whole time. And three, because there had been talk that the track was soon going to be changed to the new fake turf.

Currently there are the traditional grass and dirt tracks that make up the Del Mar Race Track. The city officials of Del Mar finally decided to replace the dirt track with the new turf that is easier on the horses. The track will be completely replaced by a new synthetic surface. From everything the papers and news reporters said this would be the last year for the traditional dirt track. The more I heard about why I understood this change was long overdue. This summer has been horrible for the horses and there were many put down for injuries. Even with a cost clocking in at around eight million dollars it finally was time for the change.

Dad and I headed out on Saturday, September 2, and immediately hit traffic. There have been tons of changes to the freeway to accommodate all the commuters and the fairground, including a lane that starts at my on-ramp and ends at the off-ramp for the races. Literally a straight shot without any merging needed; one would think it would be easy. Not in Del Mar. There had to be the obligatory moron bumper-car game. Also known as, "Is your cell phone call that important?" Then *crash boom bash* apparently so and the lawsuits shortly to follow. This particular one involved itty bitty plastic autos and oversized SUVs -- needless to say there was quite an impressive mess scattered along the road and the folks were all on their cell phones gesturing standing on the side of the road. Police and tow trucks had already arrived so it was pretty much under control other than the back up for lookie-loos.

Parking is always an art form at the fairgrounds. We decided to park at the Solana Gate. We were running a risk we would be turned away due to the crowds but lucked out. Our car was the last one allowed in that area. We parked roughly where, during the Southern California County Fair, the fun zone is with the rides and the carnies running their games of chance. Our choice of parking space was creative to say the least. Dad got extra points for risking it (I don't know that I would have).

We missed the start of the first race. I had already flipped through the newspaper my dad clipped earlier giving the odds and horses in each race during the car ride over and picked a winner. Once we got into the grandstand we watched the race on one of the many televisions inside. Laughing -- of course the horse I picked won. Naturally it won because I didn't have a dime on it. That is how horse racing goes for me.

Growing up around the track I learned that horses were hard work. Hot walkers, stable hands, groomers, and jockeys all work together to get a horse ready for every time it goes out onto the track. Each person is valuable to the endeavor of bringing a winner across the finishing line, and the horses are not small docile creatures. Anyone who has spent a minute around ranches and tracks can tell you that a majestic, temperamental creature like a horse has moods. All this creates a challenge for the jockey whenever he takes the two- to six-year-old animal out for a few furlongs or a mile. Much like children of the same age horses are likely to do the exact opposite one day to the next.

Some of the kids running around with my brothers and me when we were growing up had dads who were jockeys. We heard about the falls and breaks long before it was newsworthy. Those small men who rode the wild horses fast along the rails and brought prestige to the farms and owners were their dads and we had the inside track to the hard work they did every day. I respected them and knew how they cared for their animals. The jockeys knew before a race if their horse wasn't ready. Sometimes they could talk the owners into pulling the horse, other times they had to ride the pony in spite of their feelings.

Everyone has a way of picking the winner. At times, there are seemingly logical patterns to follow, like the horse that likes a damp track and runs well in large packs, pulling out in the last furlough. That is carefully measured and recorded by track fans and racing form analysts. Then there are the folks that like to wander to the paddock to see the horses paraded before they are put into the gate. Colors of the jockey's silks, how the horse responds to the crowd or if the hay feed drops just so (don't ask).

It was about a half hour between each race. After the first race we missed Dad and I randomly picked for the second race. I walked up and cheerfully put down a full two dollars on "Barbarian" to win. I liked the name and the green number five on his back. Seriously, that was how I picked the horse. Dad was more a bit more careful in his choices and actually read things. We then ambled over to the paddock to see the horses we picked. "Barbarian" was lively and pranced really prettily.

A grandstand general entry ticket buys you nothing more than a way into the park and ready access to the wagering windows. Some folks brought chairs and coolers while dad and I brought ourselves, cameras, water and hats. What more did we need? Okay so a seat might have been nice once in a while, but we wandered to the rail and around while they set the next race up. Our horses were off.

Then I observed the most bizarre human behavior of all. The horses were running on the track, running, actually running and all these folks were watching the big monitor in the middle of the electronic tote board in the middle of the infield. Even once the horses were actually running right in front of them! Folks weren't even glancing at the actual horses. Stunned me! My horse came in third. Which would have been good if I had bet the horse to show, but I hadn't. Dad found it funny my horse even made it to the top three since it hadn't been favored in any of the papers.

I decided to get a little riskier in the third race. I bet two horses! I liked the name "Dee Dee's Princess" and picked for the win then saw listed a horse called "Butterfly Dreams" and immediately I adored that name and that it was a long shot so I picked "Butterfly Dreams" to show. Meaning I thought "Dee Dee's Princess" would be first and "Butterfly Dreams" third. This race was full of ponies. In the booklet there were twelve horses listed. One had been scratched before the race so technically there were only going to be eleven. Dad and I checked out the horses on parade in the paddock and went to stand next to the finish line in the shade.

Waiting for the horses to be urged into the starting gate we watched as some of the horses ran back for the paddock area. Naturally "Dee Dee's Princess" was one of the wayward horses. To my dismay they scratched the horse and suddenly I was holding a ticket for a non-winner. Then I found out I got my money back from a nice lady kibitzing with dad and me. She told me her mom's secret to picking ponies: she always bet on the gray ones. Another fine tip.

Soon they were out of the gate and racing the mere 5 1/2 furloughs. To my delight, "Butterfly Dreams" sailed past the competition and pulled in ahead of the rest. I think I won a whole six dollars (okay two of those dollars were because the one horse was scratched and I got my money back). Elated we went back to pick a few more. The fourth race I got a bit cocky with my lush winnings I picked "Mr. Katz" to win. Why did I pick "Mr. Katz"? Because he was supposed to come in dead last. I mean why not? I was there to have fun. He lived up to the expectations and was dead last. But I had fun. Dad, on the other hand, actually picked a winner and got twenty-two or -three dollars back on his investment. We were ahead of the game.

We played another round and left. Thunderstorms were on the horizon and the heat was creeping up around the track. We made our way out of the park slowly. The day had a delight. I kept mentally singing the old Bing Crosby song in my head they use in the local commercials,

(Johnny Burke / Bing Crosby / James V. Monaco)

Bing Crosby

Where the turf meets the surf
down at old Del Mar
take a plane
take a train
take a car.

There is a smile on every face
and a winner in each race
where the turf meets the surf
at Del Mar.

Ironically we can only take a car. The train no longer stops at the now defunct Del Mar train station, the airport is long closed and just part of local folklore (every now and then Ken Kramer will run a 'Where in San Diego?' piece showing the old airport tarmac from the sky). A car pretty much is the only way you can get to the track.

But you know what? I had a smile on my face and took a picture of the railroad looking towards the beach. It was a good day.

-- Lydia Manx

Article © Lydia Manx. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-09-25
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