In May 1936, in the aftermath of the American Depression, a hastily convened meeting took place at the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, California. The reason for the gathering, however, had nothing to do with movies.
After a prosperous career as a pro football player, William A. Quigley settled down in La Jolla, Southern California, where he turned out to be a great visionary with a nose for business. He had his eye on the fairgrounds in Del Mar, near San Diego, and he sensed a certain potential. The area bordered to the Pacific Ocean and had exhibition facilities, a mile course for different equine stunts and provisional stands. It was by no means an impressive establishment, but its location and surroundings were ideal for Quigley’s purposes, and he was given a verbal promise to lease the area for 10 years.
The ex-footballer had a vision. He saw Los Angeles a 100 miles to the north. He saw people coming in droves for a day of fun in relaxed surroundings. He saw a race track that could be named Del Mar. He also saw who could be the track’s face to the world.
Bing Crosby was in the middle of a remarkable singing career, and during the 1930s and ‘40s he also found fame as an actor. Harry Lillis Crosby—his real name—more or less invented the singing style of crooning and was the trail blazer for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He was the brightest shining star of his time. Crosby also owned Don Juan Osuna Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe to the north east of Del Mar, where he relaxed with his family and a plethora of friends when he wasn’t performing.
Quigley, a socially accomplished charmer, knew this. He also knew Crosby was very keen on racing. Quigley was straightforward and a bit of a snob, too. He was always immaculately clad and changed his clothes several times a day. His style and personality attracted the singer, and William soon became Bill within the Crosby household. The idea of a race track at Del Mar enthused Bing Crosby to no end and not long after, the Del Mar Turf Club was founded in a board room at Warner Bros. Crosby was elected chairman, his brother Everett Crosby treasurer, Hardy secretary and O’Brien vice chairman, while Quigley himself became general manager of Del
Mar. Cooper, who a year later was to decline the leading role in Gone with the Wind, accepted a place on the board. The shares were $100 apiece and the Hollywood in-crowd dug into their pockets. Funding and schedules were in place. Now just the track itself was missing.
It took some juridical quibbling to get started, but after a while the construction was underway. To that end local San Diego architects Sam W. Hamill and Herbert Louis Jackson were engaged. The idea was to build in the style of Spanish colonial splendor, which was so much part of the architecture in Southern California.
“To the initial idea of the Spanish colonial style they soon began to add elements of Venice and Versailles including canals, lagoons and formalistic gardens.”
The architects were given a free hand and to the initial idea of the Spanish colonial style, they began to add elements of Venice and Versailles including canals, lagoons and formalistic gardens. Soon enough the money was gone. Unfazed, Crosby and O’Brien borrowed against their life insurances and each lent $600,000 interest-free to the project. The architects, however, no longer had a free hand.
Quigley was intimately connected to the events in Arcadia, California, where in 1934 Santa Anita Park had reopened to the public thanks to the initiative of film mogul Hal Roach. That track had developed into a major success with the Santa Anita Handicap, aka The Big Cap, as its main attraction. The Santa Anita meetings were held during winter, and Quigley planned to fill the space between those winter meetings with a summer meeting at Del Mar.
At that time, Southern California was thinly populated and mainly considered a place for summer holidays. The Del Mar project more or less depended on the Santa Anita crowd being willing to travel 60 miles to the new track.
On July 3, 1937, the track opened for business, but the stables and the paddock were makeshift arrangements. The employees had difficulties finding their way round the area and had to take measures to avoid the wet paint on most surfaces. Still, the horses were in place and so were the news boys. Crosby himself was at the turnstiles to greet the first fan through the gate.
After a Quigley- like change of clothes, Crosby went to the judge’s box, picked up the microphone and in his characteristically laid back and spontaneous manner announced:
“We hope you all enjoy the meeting… and have a measure of success at the payoff windows.”
An estimated 15,000 spectators turned up that first day. Crosby, Quigley and O’Brien held court. Hardy was honorary official, and Bette Davis, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, W.C. Fields, Una Merkel, Jack Dempsey, Walter Connolly and Mary Carlisle mingled. All agreed Del Mar was a success.
An innovation that became a game changer for the entire sport also debuted that day. Prior to the grand opening, Crosby contacted Lorenzo del Riccio, an optical engineer for the research department of Paramount Pictures, and commissioned him to develop a photo finish camera. He installed the camera at the cost of $300,000, which was an enormous amount of money at the time.
The first photo it took at Del Mar was hardly necessary. High Strike, a 2-year-old gelding sent off at odds of 2-1, immediately went to the front in a maiden race and stayed there. He carried the Crosby colors of blue and gold, which went down well with the crowd, and the horse came home to whooping and applause. Several races later, Stanwyck crowned the winner in the day’s main event, The Inaugural Handicap, and the cheering knew no end.
When a crowd of 18,000 turned over close to a quarter of a million dollars on the second day, everybody thought big time racing had come to stay at Del Mar. The heady days didn’t last, however. Del Mar averaged 5,000 visitors for the remainder of the 22-day meet. The weak point in Quigley’s project was of a logistic nature. The trip from Los Angeles was a pain: the trains went slow, the roads were bad and regular flights were nonexistent.
The project’s financial aspect aside, the atmosphere was good at Del Mar in the summer of 1937. The environment was pleasing. The sounds of the Pacific Ocean’s waves were pleasing. Crosby himself had a soothing effect. A columnist wrote that the singer had to be the most laid back person ever to live. The style was easy going and relaxed and word had it that only the horses were in a hurry at Del Mar.
During the mornings, or what counted for mornings, the in-crowd dozed at the beach and analyzed the afternoon’s events together with the regular mortals. At night, the stars danced at the Old Del Mar Hotel or hung out at the town’s only watering hole, La Tienda, which only closed when Bette Davis had had her share. Weekends culminated with the notorious “Bing’s Saturday Night Parties.” Those kicked off at eight in the evening and stars performed at their leisure. It may not only be for religious reasons that Sunday was a blank on the racing calendar during the early years of Del Mar.
The parties that launched each race meeting became legendary, too. The festivities started right after the compulsory walking-the-course and accommodation was at the Old Del Mar Hotel. They were boozy affairs, greeting dawn with red rimmed eyes. Al Jolson, Abe Burrows, Jimmy Durante, Joe Frisco, the Ritz Brothers, Danny Thomas, Tony Martin, Donald O’Connor and Lou Holtz took care of the entertainment.
During one such party, Durante forgot the mini piano he used to pick apart as a part of his act. Instead he rocked a proper piano, and piece by piece threw it from the terrace to the patio below. Pete Townsend of The Who would repeat that feat 30 years on, but the rest of that night at Del Mar the entertainment was strictly a capella.
Journalists often complained of hangovers lasting for days after those parties. Even so, they were back the following year. As for Durante, he was such a regular, the track eventually named its turf course in his honor.
The Crosby movie Sing, You Sinners was a Paramount musical set in a racing environment and had its world premiere at Del Mar during the opening day of the 1938 meet. Crosby also succeeded in persuading NBC to broadcast his radio show, the Kraft Music Hall, which at the time was the most popular in the States, from Del Mar for half an hour on Saturday mornings. The concept was simple: short interviews from the race track, rounded off by a couple of songs by the singer himself.
It was during one of these broadcasts in 1938 that Crosby first sung the tune that would forever define Del Mar. Mrs. Herb Poleisee, the wife of one of Crosby’s staff writers, came up with the phrase “Where the Turf Meets the Surf.” The singer and Johnny Burke came up with the rest of the words, while James V. Monaco set them to music. The refrain goes like this:
Where the turf meets the surf/
down at old Del Mar/
Take a plane, take a train, take a car/
There’s a smile on every face/
and a winner in every race/
Where the turf meets the surf/
at Del Mar.
As an attraction the presence of Hollywood stars at Del Mar races cannot be overestimated. Still it took two four-legged stars to spread the track’s appeal nationwide in its second year. Charles S. Howard had one of the most successful stables in America, and the legendary Seabiscuit was its star. Howard’s son, Lin, had a racing stable with Crosby under the name BingLin Stables. They had imported an Argentinian top performer by the name of Ligaroti, and Quigley suggested a match race between the two horses.
Seabiscuit, with his tremendous fighting spirit, was the darling of American racing and had been named the 1937 Champion Handicap Male. He had, however, disdainfully lost two “Big Caps” and now rumor had it, he was not quite the same anymore. Howard was of a different opinion and challenged his son to a side bet. His $15,000 against his son’s $5,000.
Quigley’s brainchild of a match race combined with Crosby’s wide network had made Del Mar known from coast to coast.
The press monitored the race like a title match, and the news teams loaded their film cameras. From the roof of the grandstand, Crosby and O’Brien commented on the event to a nationwide radio audience. An estimated crowd of 20,000, many sporting paraphernalia for their pick in the $25,000 winner-take-all event, showed up for the race.
Seabiscuit was ridden by George “Ice Man” Woolf and the South American horse by Noel “Spec” Richardson. Race riding at this time was no Sunday School event and this race was no exception. Seabiscuit was in front coming around the final turn, but Richardson grabbed his saddlecloth at the top of the stretch and later went for Woolf’s wrist. Reports claim that in retaliation, Woolf grabbed Ligaroti’s bridle about 20 yards from the wire and didn’t let go until the race was over. Richardson later said Woolf was whipping Ligaroti, which is why he grabbed his wrist. To this day, no one quite knows exactly what happened, except that it was a roughly run race to say the least.
It is known that the crowd loved the spectacle. In the end, Seabiscuit held on by a nose and shaved four seconds off the track record in the process, even though he was carrying 130 lbs to Ligaroti’s 115 lbs. The stewards, however, were livid and declared the race void and warned off both Richardson and Woolf. It took a while of negotiating before the result was allowed to stand and the jockeys got away with a one week suspension each.
Even if the jockeys were not best friends after the race, the atmosphere at the track was electric. Quigley’s brainchild of a match race combined with Crosby’s wide network had made Del Mar known from coast to coast.
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club
2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd
Del Mar, CA 92014
Tel (858) 755-1141
Pacific Classic (G1), Eddie Read Stakes (G2)
Del Mar Oaks (G1), Bing Crosby Stakes (G1)
Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (G1)
Del Mar Debutante (G1)
Del Mar Futurity (G1)
City of Del Mar is on the I-5 20 miles north of San Diego or 100 miles south of Los Angeles (downtown). Amtrak and Coaster have trains to Solana Beach from where there are free shuttle buses to Del Mar.
Ann Sheridan, Paulette Goddard and Joan Bennett were some of the celebs to turn up in Del Mar’s winner’s circle that summer. Rumor even had it that Greta Garbo was there, though nobody saw her. Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and Red Skelton definitely were there, though, and it had become important to one’s film carrier to be seen at Del Mar.
If the second year at Del Mar was a success based on media coverage, crowds and betting turn-over, the next couple of seasons hardly made the shareholders dance in the streets. The net profit for 1939 landed on a modest $69. The real economical breakthrough had to wait until 1941, when the Pacific Highway (US 101) had been expanded and the air traffic to the San Diego area intensified.
Everything came to an abrupt halt, however, in December 1941 when the United States entered the Second World War. Between 1942 and 1944, the track was closed and the grounds were initially used for training by the United States Marine Corps, then as a manufacturing site for parts to B-17 bombers.
Del Mar was back in business as a racetrack in July 1945, but without Quigley, who had passed away after a short time of bad health. A crowd of more than 20,000 turned up on the reopening day, and the rest of the year was a formidable success. The upward trend continued the next year and after nine years Crosby and O’Brien at last had their investments back. Crosby sold his shares and left the board, and he was soon followed by O’Brien.
In spite of that, the Hollywood crowd continued to go racing at Del Mar. Santa Fe Railroad contributed to the effort with a special train from Los Angeles to Del Mar. The “racetrack special” debuted in 1947, and when the train first came into view, a tremendous cheering broke out. That cheering became a tradition for years to come.
The horses that put Del Mar on the map went on to greater things. Seabiscuit headed east, where he trounced War Admiral in the epic match race at Pimlico and was named the 1938 Horse of the Year. He capped off his career by winning the Santa Anita Handicap at long last in 1940.
Ligaroti won the 1938 Del Mar Handicap but like Seabiscuit was a disappointment in the breeding shed. It was not for lack of effort, though, as he ended his days collapsing on top of a mare named Midge. The resulting foal was suitably named Last Bang.
Gary Cooper, who had turned down Gone with the Wind because he felt it would be a resounding flop, could after its premiere in Atlanta 1939 and eight Oscars later note that he had made a serious error of judgment.
Lorenzo del Riccio turned his back on Paramount Pictures and went all in on the new and lucrative photo finish business. The company wanted its share of the pie and sued him, but unabated he continued to install photo finish cameras all over the country with Paramount’s lawyers snapping at his heels. He managed to keep one step ahead and somewhere along the line he disappeared altogether as a wealthy man.
Bing Crosby visited the track one last time in 1977. He died of a heart attack the following year, but the style and spirit he created at Del Mar still lives on. The Bing Crosby Stakes, which was inaugurated in 1946, is run to this day and is a Grade 1 race.
Pat O’Brien kept his movie carrier alive until he in 1983, like his old partner in crime, died of a heart attack. He too has a race named after him at Del Mar. First held in 1986, today it is a Grade 2 event.
Today, Del Mar is revered as one of America’s most iconic tracks, and in 2014, it was announced the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, one of Thoroughbred racing’s most prestigious international events, would be held there for the first time in November 2017. Next year, the world’s best will gather at the timelessly beautiful track at the edge of the Pacific Ocean or, as it says in the song, “Where the Turf Meets the Surf.”
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