DEL MAR — With an opening day that began more focused on fashion than fillies, the Del Mar Race Track kicked off its first fall meet in nearly 50 years, with attendance at 11,513.
“We got the first pickle out of the gate and it looks good,” Joe Harper, president and chief executive officer of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said immediately after the first race, which jockey Tyler Baze won riding Wild Caroline.
“The field sizes are good,” Harper added. “We have leading jockeys. We have top-rated horses. And the crowd is certainly beyond my expectations.”
The Turf Club was sold out and trackside dining tables were 95 percent filled.
Del Mar added the inaugural Bing Crosby Season — named for the actor who cofounded the iconic seaside track in 1937 — following the recent closure of Hollywood Park.
Total handle for the Nov. 7 opening day was $8,560,127, nearly 47 percent more than Hollywood Park’s final opening day in 2013.
The more than $1.3 million on-track handle was 129 percent better than Hollywood’s, which had an opening day attendance of 2,772 last year.
Del Mar’s one and only other fall meet in 1967 drew an opening-day crowd of 3,909 and had a total mutuel handle of $389,571.
The new opening day featured a Vintage Hollywood Fashion Contest that included more than 100 entrants vying for prizes in three categories: most glamorous, best-dressed couple and best celebrity lookalike.
Competition was stiff in the latter, with contestants dressed as Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable — who said he was there to bet on Seabiscuit — and Lucille Ball, a regular at the Del Mar track in its early days.
Prizes included $1,500 in gift certificates for the Bing Crosby Grand Prize and $300, $200 and $100 for first-, second- and third-place, respectively, in each category.
Tatiana Slepova of San Diego was the grand prizewinner, and she placed first in the most glamorous category.
Connie Turner and Edith Leon took second and third place as most glamorous. Derek Larsen and Brenna Bidegain, Paul Allard of Encinitas and Kim Whiting of Del Mar and Helsa and Warren Gilmore were named the top three best-dressed couples.
The top celebrity lookalikes were Crystal Looney, who donned Doris Day attire, Dawn Gurghardt of Vista, who came dressed as Michael Jackson, and Pamela Everhart.
Deena Von Yokes, owner of Studio Savvy in Rancho Santa Fe, worked with track officials to coordinate the contest.
Many of the contestants said they usually attend the summer race meet and hope the new season is a success. They said they liked the smaller crowds and cooler weather.
By comparison, opening day at Del Mar for the past two summers attracted approximately 47,000 people.
Racing will continue Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 30. Post time was scheduled for noon but that was moved to 12:30 p.m. on all days except Nov. 27. Races will start at 11 a.m. that day, which is Thanksgiving.
Attendance during the first weekend was 29,076, almost triple the number of people who were on hand during the first three days of Hollywood Park’s farewell season.
The on-track handle averaged about $1.3 million per day.
There were nine races run on each of the first three days, with 11 of them on the turf course that was installed in March.
Four breakdowns during the summer meet on the newly installed track forced its closure for part of that season, although officials maintain the course was not to blame.
According to the racetrack website, “Trainers and jockeys responded positively to the grass strip,” which is “now fully settled and deep-rooted.”
Jockey Mike Smith described it as “brilliant” and “one of the best courses I’ve ever ridden on.”
There were no injuries on that course or the synthetic Polytrack during the first three days of the new fall season.