Del Mar Horse Races Opening Day 2006 - Hats, Hats, and More Hats

Del Mar, Ca - On Wednesday July 19th, officials at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club welcomed a record-breaking 42,005 horse racing enthusiasts to the opening day of the 64th annual racing season at the Del Mar Race Track. Opening day is the social happening of San Diego, heck southern California, that kicks off 43 days of racing.

Judging from the size of the opening day crowd, it's no wonder that horse racing is the second most widely attended U.S. spectator sport after baseball. Horse racing became a professional sport in England during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). While out riding in 1711, Queen Anne came upon an area of open heath, not far from Windsor Castle, that appeared to be an ideal place for horses to gallop at full stretch. She deemed this area Ascot Heath. The first race meeting ever held at Ascot took place on Saturday August 11, 1711. Her Majesty's Plate, worth 100 guineas and open to any horse, mare or gelding over the age of six, was the inaugural event. The first Royal Ascot, a 4-day meeting, took place in 1768. The first Gold Cup, the feature race of the third day of the Royal Ascot, was held in 1807. The Gold Cup day is traditionally the busiest day of the week and is arguably the impetus of racing as we know it today.

We can thank the British settlers for bringing horses and the time-honored sport of horse racing to our side of the pond. The first racetrack was laid out on Long Island in 1665. Although the sport became a popular local pastime in the New World, the development of organized racing did not arrive until after the Civil War. For the next several decades, with the rapid rise of an industrial economy, gambling on racehorses, and therefore horse racing itself, grew explosively; by 1890, 314 tracks were operating across the country.

Now, let's be honest. It is quite exciting to bet on a race! The delicious rush of adrenaline bursting from deep within one's soul and exploding throughout the entire body while watching the horses cross the finish line is undoubtedly addicting. I, however, find that intoxicating rush of exhilaration through fashion. Thank goodness opening day at the Del Mar Race Track is, for the most part, centered around fashion: the One and Only Truly Fabulous Hat Contest, a competition inspired by Bing Crosby in 1937. Now, this is my kind of sport!

Hats, and the accompanying attire, play a very important role in the history of professional horse racing. In 1807, Beau Brummel, a close friend of the Prince Regent, decreed that gentlemen must wear top hats, waisted black coats, and white cravats with pantaloons to Royal Ascot. The Gold Cup, in fact, is colloquially known as 'Ladies' Day.' In the formative years, it was the dominant day in terms of racing that attracted the largest crowds and, it must be assumed from the emergence of the term 'Ladies' Day,' more ladies! Over the years, a tradition evolved whereby ladies were expected to were equally respectable clothing as the men, including hats. Thus, the royal dress code emerged and permeated the borders of the United States. 

In 1937, Bing Crosby started the One and Only Truly Fabulous Hat Contest held on opening day which continues to this day. Present day, the tradition of wearing hats for fun or for competition shows absolutely no sign of weakening. On Wednesday afternoon, hats, hats, and more hats could be seen filing into the Del Mar Race Track.

Opening day was the equivalent of a United Nations summit meeting, but for fashion: representatives of all genres of fashion were present at the race track. Hats of all shapes, sizes, and colors were seen floating around throughout the crowd. Given the size of the hats, it's no wonder we ladies suffered some minor hat collisions throughout the day. After all, it is quite difficult to see where we are headed when a large brim is covering one eye in addition to blocking our vision from the eyebrows up!

The hats entered in the One and Only Truly Fabulous Hat Contest were wildly creative, wacky, and awe-inspiring. Some contestants spent months preparing for the competition, and their efforts definitely showed. One contestant fashioned a miniature model of the entire Del Mar Race Track, mounted it on a helmet, and wore it out to opening day! Others honored the stars of the races, the horses, with helmets covered in moss complete with miniature stallions speckled across the top. From fruit to flowers, every hat made an eber-unique statement.

It is quite amazing how hats wondrously lift the spirit! Smiles peeked from under the broad brims while laughs and happy chatter filled the air. There was not a frown in sight, even when those pesky hat collisions occurred. Well, frowns were sometimes seen, but can be attributed to lost bets more so than the hats.

One of the great things about hats is that they are instant conversation starters. They reflect the person that is underneath that large, colorful brim. Every one was more than happy to pose for pictures and to tell me a little bit about their hat. Nancy, a dentist from Solana Beach, apparently doubles as a decorating wizard. She threw this chic chapeaus together in about 10 minutes the morning of opening day! A little flower here, a little butterfly there, and voila! A masterpiece is born!

From swank style to wacky wonders, every hat paid homage to a time-honored tradition that will undoubtedly be around for years to come. Oh, if only we could wear these heavenly hats every day!

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