Horsing around in Del Mar

Just as you can love the Internet's ability to yield information--facts, even!--without understanding the behavior of electrons on the motherboard, you can love the sport of horse racing without understanding the art of handicapping.

For me, it's about the horses, the singularly most beautiful running creatures God gave legs. It's about precisely conditioned athletes and the adrenaline junkies who ride them. It's about the colorful ritual that surrounds that most basic athletic pursuit, the foot race.

For me, it's not about calculating odds and picking winners, which is suspiciously like advanced-placement math. Horse racing is like craps--it's as simple or complicated as you want it to be. Even if you play only the pass line and make sucker bets in the field, the action at a craps table is exciting and engrossing. The action at a race track is at the betting window, but it's also feeling the power of a thousand-pound animal running 40 mph 20 yards from where you're standing at the rail.

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You can love the fact that a horse can breathe only through its nose. That a horse breathes in rhythm with its stride, exhaling when its legs are extending, inhaling when they're bending inward, in a bellows effect. You can love the fact that a horse's chestnut, that knobby chunk of keratin on its inner leg, is as unique to an individual animal as a fingerprint is to a human.

You can love watching a Thoroughbred do what it was born to do anywhere, but this time of year in Southern California, the best Thoroughbreds return the affection only in Del Mar.

Once more popular among the younger generation than MMA is today, horse racing is hurting, thanks to competition from other forms of gambling, uninspired marketing and control-freak management. There's concern about doping and the occasional stomach-turning injury and death of animals that might love to run, but only because we make them. And, like hockey, horse racing is thrilling in person, but rather anemic on TV.

In Southern California, horse racing is experiencing a seismic shift, with the impending loss of one of its top-tier tracks, Inglewood's Hollywood Park. After the autumn meet ends in December, the Thoroughbreds move out and the bulldozers move in. (Note to developer: Might wanna double-check the location of the Newport-Inglewood fault line--see Millennium Hollywood skyscraper project.)

Del Mar paddock entry 8-10-13.jpgWith only a couple of weeks left in the meet, now's your chance to love horse racing in Del Mar, even if you don't know your furlong from your fetlock. Back-dropped by the Pacific, the track beckons from the sclerotic I-5 that makes the commute from L.A. feel slower than a gimpy nag at the back of the pack at Also-Ran Downs.

On Sunday, Del Mar runs the richest and most prestigious race of its season--the TVG Pacific Classic, with a $1 million purse. It promises an immersive education in contrasts--winners and losers, fashionistas and beach bums, Turf Club dining and fast-food fixes.

After code-breaking (or not) the Daily Racing Form, you have to do something between races. Drinking is an option. Everyone knows you drink mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby, but once upon a time, even that was a longshot. One spectator at the 56th running of the Derby in 1930 was George Villiers Stanley, the 17th Earl of Derby, who observed: "You have a great many advantages I should like to copy for England, but Prohibition is not one of them."

So have a beer. Survey the track from the grandstand, and the blue Pacific from the roof of the Spanish Mission clubhouse. Eat something that will spoil your dinner while you leaf through the daily racing program pretending to understand the race description:


I worked my way through that one's creative use of language and typography, and actually figured out most of it, with assistance from my companion on the Cal-bred stuff. Suffice it to say the California Horse Racing Board is a homer.

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I was edified. I was clueless. An employee of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, a 40-year horse-racing cognoscente who shall remain nameless to protect his reputation, said that in this race I should bet on the No. 6 horse, Orangeyouacutie, because although he suffered from distraction issues, today he was racing with blinkers that promised a more focused effort.

He's still running.

But the race was an adventure, thanks to No. 2, Shining Son, who ran the whole way as if he were the gym-class geek trying to keep up with the jocks. It wasn't his fault. The assistant starter--the guy who guides the horse into the gate and, standing on a narrow rail in that tiny chute, puts his life at risk managing a huge, high-spirited critter with pre-race jitters--had grabbed Shining Son's bridle to pull him straight when the starter, who hadn't seen the struggle, opened the gates. That compromised the horse's ability to break with the rest of the field, and the rare track snafu prompted Shining Son to be disqualified.

I should have kissed my brother and gone with Shining Son--people who bet on him got their money back.

Before the featured race, the $150,000 La Jolla Handicap, I stood along the rail lining the tunnel from the saddling paddock to the track. The racetrack trumpeter, dressed like a mariachi, sat trackside near the jockey scale, tuning his muted instrument and loosening up his fingers for the call to the post.

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Watching the post parade 10 feet from where horses and jockeys walk from the paddock to the track, you marvel at the delicacy and power of these animals, and how tiny are their human enablers. Their cut muscles flex beneath their glistening coats, they're edgy, haughty, and the sense of anticipation is palpable. When the grooms hand off the reins to the pony boys and girls, the difference between the racers and their companions to the gate is the difference between Usain Bolt and a weekend jogger.

Some silk colors are so loud you swear they can be heard at the far turn. There's a reason for that: In mid 17th-century England, King Charles II (he of the long, curly wig that looks like a black sheep died on his head) popularized horse racing by encouraging commoners to attend the races he waged in Newmarket among noblemen. As Americans have difficulty distinguishing earls from dukes, those spectators had trouble telling their bobtail nags from their bays. So racing silks, or colors, were assigned to each competitor--"Earl No. 1, you look like an autumn, go with orange; Duke No. 3, clearly a summer, it's pink for you..."

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Today, horse owners choose their stable's colors, and the designs often get personal. The Robert B. and Beverly J. Lewis Trust stable goes green and yellow because its founders, owners of Charismatic and Silver Charm, went to the University of Oregon. Because his fortune came as a McDonald's franchise owner, Mike Pegram, owner of Real Quiet and Lookin at Lucky, orders red and yellow, and a side of fries.

In this race, Joseph Talamo, jockey for the No. 4 horse, Dry Summer, wore sunny yellow with a purple happy face design. You had to wonder if that was Dry Summer's sentiment, because the racing program noted that he'd been gelded since his last start.

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One young woman surveyed the field, clutched her black sun hat and bemoaned her lack of winners so far today. "Yesterday," she told a bunch of guys nearby, "I won four out of five races. I won 80 bucks."

I didn't know which was more impressive--her commitment to the action or her ability to navigate the tunnel dirt in high heels.

Then they were off in a blur. As for every race, an ambulance chased the field, leaving a track-dust wake. Said the Cognoscente Who Shall Not Be Named, "You know you're in a dangerous line of work when an ambulance follows you around the track."

Thankfully, the only drama this time was supplied by jockey Garrett Gomez, who won atop No. 8 Dice Flavor in his first race since being fined and suspended for missing scheduled mounts and being treated for substance abuse. Dice Flavor's photo op in the winner's circle--which is a rectangle--was poignant not only for Gomez and his team, but for many of the 25,769 spectators sharing the moment.

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At day's end, the horses were back in their barns, the ocean air was chilling and the ground was littered with betting slips. Nearly $17.3 million from bettors around the country and here at the track had been wagered on Del Mar races. I have no idea how many bets were placed, nor how many were winners.

You could probably look it up on the Internet. It would probably be wrong.

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Photos by Ellen Alperstein

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