The Pacific Classic: A Million Dollar Afternoon at Old Del Mar

Program in hand, sunglasses in place, and wallet at the ready, I took my first big steps into the world of horse racing at Sunday's 15th annual Pacific Classic at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. Not knowing what to expect, my mind conjured up images that alternated between Eliza Doolittle at the opening day of the Ascot Races in My Fair Lady and the shady characters who populated the Off Track Betting site in the New York City bus terminal I used to frequent. Fortunately, Del Mar tends towards the former. While lacy parasols, white gloves and bustling skirts are nowhere to be seen, the Del Mar races manage to retain a bit of that Audrey Hepuburn-esque glamour, while offering high stakes races to seasoned gamblers.

and they're off

The Pacific Classic is the annual highlight of the Del Mar season and this year was no different. The $1 million purse up for grabs attracted more than 30,000 spectators, who bet a record $24,048,615. Although I couldn't distinguish between a quinella from a place bet, I wanted to get in on the action and placed a $5 win on the favored horse Lava Man. (For novices like me, there's a helpful cheat sheet printed inside every program).

the winner's trophy

As Lava Man paraded around the paddock with the other ten competitors before the start of the race, I had the opportunity to examine his glistening hide and sinewy muscles. The tension was palpable as the horses were corralled into the starting gate, awaiting the starting signal.As the horses sped by the stands, the stadium erupted into a roar. The crowd's attention turned to the screen, ears tuned to the commentary of an announcer who put auctioneers to shame, as the horses drifted out of sight. Lava Man had a quick start and took an early lead, giving me a false sense of confidence that I just might see my $5 bet again.

However, my hopes were quickly dashed. At the one mile marker, with just a quarter mile left, Lava Man was overtaken. As the horses came back into sight, Lava Man was passed by Borrego and Perfect Drift.

the lawn ornament which will be repainted Borrego's green and white

The crowd was on its feet (and at times, in the air) as impassioned fans screamed out their horse's numbers, hoping for a big pay-out. In a heart-pounding, adrenaline rush of a finish, Borrego managed to capture first place, and the hefty purse, by just a half-a-horse lead. Lava Man finished third. Of course, I was disappointed that it was not my horses' colors which would adorn the lawn ornament jockey in the paddock, but it was an exhilarating, shockingly addictive experience nonetheless.

While the obvious draw of the races is the horses, there is enough going on in the stadium to keep one busy during the down periods between posting times. The grounds offer a large number of ample number of bars, restaurants, concession stands and gift shops, to coax away any money you didn't already bet. This time is also the perfect opportunity to engage in some old-fashioned people watching.

Victor Espinoza models the jockeys' stricking ensembles

The Del Mar races is certainly one of those see-and-be-seen events. It's an excuse for many attendees to show off their Sunday finery, sculpted body parts, or flowered hats, although jeans and sneakers are acceptable attire everywhere but the exclusive jacket-only Turf Club.
While I don't envision myself becoming a hardened horse gambler, the races are a lively diversion from the everyday. The excitement of the races make for an ideal girls' day out, unique date, or family outing. Races are run daily, except Tuesday, until the close of the season on September 7th. For more information, visit

the winner's circle

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