Thoroughbred racing returned to the Del Mar Racetrack Thursday for its 75th season, with a $100,000 purse.
The Brazilian horse named Hawk's Eyes won the first race over Fit to Rule. Mr. Candy Bar was third.
"Oh my god, it's so much fun. It's crazy!" exclaimed Beth Stanton, who came from Wisconsin for Opening Day. "All the hats … I love to people-watch, so... it's great!"
It is not just the crowds that get animated. The jockeys love it, too. Kentucky Derby winning jockey Mike Smith spoke of his appreciation for the spectacle.
"Ain't a better place to be on Opening Day and I mean that," he told 10News. "I've been to opening day at almost every racetrack in the country and this is the cream of the crop."
The 20th annual hats contest, an opening day fixture in the Plaza de Mexico, featured categories like Best Racing Theme, Funniest/Most Outrageous, Most Glamorous, Best Flowers/All Others, and Best Fascinator -- a wool, lace or feather alternative to a hat.
Kita Dotson and Sandy Popescu showed off their hats.
"My hat is from my grandmother's attic, feathers from the 1900s so it's really a sentimental hat to me 'cause I love these feathers since I was a little girl," said Dotson.
Popescu said, "Mine is a bee in a bonnet 'cause she gave me the idea.
The men get into it, too. Paul Whiteley wore what he called a Mad Hatter floral arrangement.
The top prize in each category is $300, plus a $100 gift certificate from the Studio Savvy salon. Second place is $200 and third place, $100.
A grand prize winner will receive a two-night stay at The Grand Del Mar hotel and dinner for two, valued at more than $1,000, along with a $500 gift certificate from The Village Hat Shop.
But it is the racing and the gambling and everything else that makes it work.
Jim Taylor was smiling.
"I come from Carlsbad and I'm here almost every year and every day 'cause I love it," he said.
Stepping away from a betting window with a fistful of tickets, John Talley was obviously a man with a plan.
"I bet 2-5-6-10, boxed, 6 to show, and 2-10-5 trifecta," he said.
The Breeder's Cup coming in 2017 will bring even more prestige to Del Mar.
Del Mar Racetrack President Joe Harper is excited about the prospect.
"They come all the way from Dubai and the Middle East and from Europe and the U.K.," he said. "They come from South America and the financial impact on San Diego is going to be tremendous."
He estimates $70 million to $90 million.
Tiago Pereira recently came from South America to ride at Del Mar.
"California's a good place," he said.
His wife Fernanda added, "And his dream was to ride in California ... U.S."
He did and he won the first race.
The race season runs through Sept. 3 and this year, a 15-date mini-season will be held in November.
"Our fall race meeting starting this year will be totally separate from our summer session," said Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president and CEO Joe Harper. "They will be two different animals. We know our summer meet is a winner -- we've proven it over and over again. And we expect our autumn run can be special, too, in its own way."
The annual highlight of the summer racing season, the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic, is set for Aug. 24.
Races are scheduled Wednesday through Sunday, with the first-race post time at 2 p.m. most days. On Fridays, the first post is 4 p.m.
Admission prices after opening day will be $10 for the clubhouse and $6 for the stretch run on all other days.
The North County Transit District is operating two additional southbound trains Thursday, one of which left the Oceanside Transit Station at 11:30 a.m. and the other set to head out at 6:35 p.m. During the season, the agency will offer a "Pony Express" ticket, which for $11 includes round-trip fare on the
Coaster and Sprinter trains, along with the Breeze bus, plus stretch run admission and a free shuttle between the Solana Beach Coaster station and the racetrack.
The racing season traditionally begins on Wednesday but was pushed back a day to prepare the track following the San Diego County Fair.