The seaside track in San Diego's North County was overtaken by big hats and powerful horses Wednesday for the summer when the 2019 Del Mar Racing season opens later this month.
Tens of thousands of horse racing enthusiasts were expected to attend this year's Opening Day, which kicked off a month-and-a-half of racing and other events at the track "where the turf meets the surf."
Gates opened promptly at 11:30 a.m. on Opening Day for a day filled with festivities, including the Del Mar Races long-standing tradition, the famous Opening Day Hat Contest.
Just inside the Stretch Run admission gates, at the Plaza de Mexico, guests competed to see who has the best headware in five different categories: "Most Glamorous," "Best Racing Theme," "Funniest/Most Outrageous," "Best Fascinator," and "Flowers/All Other."
One by one, contestants strutted their stuff, showcasing their fancy, elaborate hats as they compete to win their share of more than $5,000 in total prizes. Those who are interested in participating can register at the event for free until 3 p.m.
This year, first place winners in each category will receive $300, plus a Studio Savvy gift basket valued at $200. Second place winners will walk away with $200, while third place winners score $100.
The biggest winner of the day – the Bing Crosby Grand Prize winner – will receive a one-night stay at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar and a multi-course dinner for two with wine pairings at Del Mar’s lavish Addison Restaurant. This prize is worth more than $1,500.
The Hat Contest is part of a tradition that dates back to the Del Mar Racetrack's opening in 1937, when Bing Crosby greeted guests as they entered the seaside track.
According to organizers, the Opening Day contest was officially established in 1995. Each year, the competition is fierce with hardcore hat enthusiasts turning out by the droves to show off their creations.
Many spend months meticulously designing that perfect hat to match their Opening Day attire flawlessly. Year after year, hundreds of participants enter the Hats Contest, making it the place to see and be seen on Opening Day.
While the races are the draw of the day, those wanting a little extra fun were able to attend one of two race day events.
During the races, "The Party" was being held track-side, equipped with a DJ, a craft beer and cocktail garden and a private wagering area. Tickets to The Party cost $35 and include Stretch Run admission.
A separate "After Pony Party" will be held at the Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa once the races come to a close. The after party will feature a DJ and dancing, food and drink. Tickets start at $125 and come with a welcome drink and all-you-can-eat tastings starting at 6 p.m.
The 80th summer racing season runs through Sept. 2, with the track closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Gates open two hours before first post, which is at 2 p.m. everyday except Fridays, when first post is at 4 p.m.
Admission tickets start at $6 per person and can be purchased online or over the phone through the racetrack's ticketing office. Head to the track on a Wednesday for free stretch run admission (except on Opening Day).
There are several public transportation options, and even specially priced train tickets, to help you get to the races. For more information, visit here.
The racetrack will host food-inspired and themed events throughout the season, including Family Fun Day with a plush horse giveaway for kids on Sunday, July 21, the Uncorked Wine Festival with sips from more than 150 wineries on Saturday July 27, the Taco and Beer Festival featuring dozens of local taco shops on Aug. 3, and more.
Every Sunday, guests can indulge in a three-course meal specially created by local celebrity chef Brian Malarkey. For $100 a person, guests will get a special Turf Club table reserved for race day. The Taste of the Turf Club dining experience includes a choice of appetizer, entre desert and bottomless sips of either mimosas, bloody marys or sparkling wine.
On weekend mornings, visitors can get their most important meal of the day while watching the horses warm up from the Clubhouse Terrace Restaurant. Reservations to the Daybreak at Del Mar, which also includes behind the scenes lessons from a racing broadcaster, can be made from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.
And on Fridays, visitors can partake in Happy Hour, where signature cocktails will be 50 percent off until 6 p.m.
Music is also at the forefront of this year's racing season. On most Fridays and Saturdays throughout the season, entertainment includes a concert on the Seaside Stage after the final race of the day. This year's lineup includes reggae with Ziggy Marley, country with Midland and 80s rock with cover band Wayward Sons. Check out SoundDiego's guide to concerts at the racetrack's here.
The racetrack's 80th season opens in the shadow of Santa Anita Racetrack's controversy. The Southern California track's troubled racing season closed in late June after the deaths of 30 horses and the banning of a Hall of Fame trainer.
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club made changes to their safety and inspection procedures before the start of the 2019 season, including creating a panel of veterinarians to review each horse before each race and restricting horses from receiving controversial anti-inflammatory medication within 48 before a race.