Liz Swain 5:30 p.m., Sept. 22
- Community Blog
- In Those Days
Hanging out at the Del Mar Racetrack in the '50s
The Del Mar racetrack was my world in the early 1950s. First came the Fair, which was called the Del Mar Agricultural Fair in those days and consisted mostly of fruit exhibits in the large buildings and livestock in the barn area. Avocados from Fallbrook and beef on the hoof were the main attractions. Parking was free and you could get into the fairgrounds for 50 cents. My weekly allowance was $2.50, so I had to save up before the fair started. Luckily, in those days the fair only lasted ten days. The biggest draws for me were the horse shows and the rodeos. There were a few rides and many games in the fun zone. My favorite ride was the salt and pepper shaker. If you didn't win at least one stuffed animal a day you were really a loser. I seemed to stock up on goldfish and ducklings as prizes, much to the dismay of my grandparents with whom I lived.
I grew up in a girls' boarding school and lived for summer vacations. I led a very sheltered life during the winters and when summer arrived it seemed like I had been transported to another planet.
Things really started to hum just before the racing meet started. Trainloads of horses pulled into the railroad siding on the south side of Jimmy Durante Bridge near the Del Mar slough. Horses were unloaded and hand-led across the bridge down the boulevard to the backstretch. No vans in those days. The plans for I-5 were still on paper. The only corridor to the track was Highway 101 wending its way through all the towns along the way. Trains were the order of the day. They again pulled in at the meet's end and the horses headed north on their circuit to Tanforan (which burned down one year) and Bay Meadows in the San Francisco Bay Area. People would go to the siding and sit and watch the horses being unloaded. Sometimes the horses became very fractious, causing a big stir.
As the race meet drew near, the town of Del Mar started bulging at the seams. The population almost doubled. We searched for our friends from previous meets. Times were tough then and some would drop out due to hardships, never to be heard of again.
There was a noticeable class distinction at the track back then. Hotwalkers, exercise boys, stall muckers were the lowest echelons; trainers and jockeys were next on the rung; then the owners. The horse owners didn't mix with the others. Trainers and jockeys were not allowed in the Turf Club, called the Jockey Club then — only members and owners. Most of the trainers hung out in the clubhouse and grandstand along with other backstretch workers.
In the mornings a group from the backstretch would meet on Del Mar Beach in front of the pergola and plunge near the old pier (none of which exists today). We ended up being about twenty in the group, give or take a few on any given day, depending on who had hangovers and went back to bed to sleep it off. First to arrive would be the exercise boys who straggled onto the beach around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. They galloped horses early in the morning. They started about 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. and were done by 8:00 a.m. They would dump their stuff on the sand and go for a long jog down the beach to keep in shape; next a quick dip in the ocean to shake the cobwebs; and then they settled down to carefully study the Daily Racing Form for that day's races. Sometimes you would see the jockeys running by but they kept to themselves.
The hotwalkers arrived at the beach next. Their job was to walk the horses in circles until they were dry after the morning gallops. This kept them at the track later than the ex-boys. No need to keep in shape because these were usually big men who could handle horses when they became unruly.
As the morning progressed, trainers and owners arrived with their families and staked claim to a plot of sand. They usually toted pails, shovels, floats, umbrellas, and lots of kids. The aforementioned lowly backstretch workers were not married, had no children, and arrived with a towel and Racing Form in hand. By noon everyone seemed to be snoozing. Life on the racetrack is exhausting.
Until I was fourteen I used my small horse for wheels. I used to ride seven miles to the beach, tie it to a palm tree, ask the lifeguards for a bucket of water, and leave it there until I was ready to go home. People started bringing goodies to give the horse and it spent the hours content with the attention it received. When I turned fourteen I was given a hardship driver's license because I lived in the back country where there was no public transportation. The driver's license liberated me. I was able to go out at night! Once I had the driver's license I borrowed my grandfather's car to get around. I, personally, stayed at the beach until 1:00 pm. Then I sped home, showered, changed clothes, and was back in Del Mar by 2:00 pm for the first post time. I had one of the workers meet me before the first race and mark my program and some days I would have five or six winners based on his picks.
I first started going to the track when I was four years old. My grandfather took me when he had to babysit. He got a season box in the clubhouse the very first year (1937) and it is still in the family today. I loved going to the races as a toddler. I would collect all the mutual tickets that had been thrown on the ground by people thinking they had lost the race. Back then the tickets came in different pastel colors: blue, pink, yellow depending on whether you bet to win, place or show. No exotic bets then — except they soon introduced the Daily Double bet on the first two races. I would give the collected tickets to my grandfather who checked to see if anyone had thrown away a winning ticket. There were quite a few.
When I reached teenage years, there wasn't much to do around Del Mar in the evenings. So the racetrack organized softball games in one corner of the large parking lot which was dirt at the time. These usually occurred on Friday or Saturday nights. Sometimes the movie stars — Betty Grable, her husband Harry James, Victor Mature, Jimmy Durante — and others would play the jockeys. Other games would be the jockeys against a girls' softball team from San Diego named the Slick Chicks. Trainers against backstretch workers, or trainers against celebrities rounded out the choices. Basketball games between the jockeys and others in one of the buildings were also a must-see and amusing because of the height difference. Two evenings a week the movies would change at the Solana Beach theater or there was the possibility of catching a show at the La Paloma theater in Encinitas. Solana Beach was closer to the track and if you weren't there on time, you probably couldn't get in because they'd sell out, especially on opening nights. Every place we went we would see the same people and we aII knew each other so these became social events.
The Jockey Club also offered sumptuous buffets and dancing after the races on Saturday nights but only for members and owners and they were rather stuffy but they did hire big bands to come in and play and sometimes someone famous.
Once I had my driver's license I became the designated driver for the backstretch people. They not only didn't have families, children, or permanent homes but cars were an unaffordable luxury for most of them. Gas only cost 25 cents a gallon but it was a different life then. Most of my pals lived over the horse stalls at the track and were always hitching rides to get off the track. Some of them took the bus from Del Mar to downtown San Diego to stay in a flop house when they got too sick of being on the track and needed a day or two to get away. We all knew each other by our first names only or by nicknames such as Big Bob, Little Bob, Lucky Buck, and so on. Most had wanted to become jockeys but had put on too much weight or grown too tall so they fell into doing the menial chores on the backstretch to make a living. They were rich one day and poor the next depending on their luck at the track; never really scrambling totally out of debt and poverty. In later years I heard a few of them did make it.
Our very favorite thing to do was the Tijuana scene. Two or three nights a week after they were finished with their chores at the track, we would all head in my car to TJ. Our first destination was the Caliente racetrack where we would catch some of the dog races, along with half the population of San Diego, it seemed. The dogs were relatively easy to pick and they had the exotic betting there so money could be made. It was packed and some nights we didn't have seats and would have to stand the whole time. When that was over, it was on to the Jai Alai Palace for the last two or three games which weren't so easy to pick because they were said to be fixed. The Palace was also packed and sometimes we would have to watch from the bar on the side of the court. Remember, we had to go down Highway 101 all along the coast through National City and Chula Vista to reach the border and yet it only took about forty minutes because there wasn't any traffic. We would arrive back in Del Mar about 1:00 a.m. Conversation to and from Tijuana was always horse talk, horse talk, horse talk. Jimmy's horse should have won today, but wait till next time ... etc. We also spent Sundays at the Caliente racetrack because Del Mar didn't have racing Sundays and Mondays. As if we didn't get enough racing during the week!
My girlfriends just couldn't understand it; worse yet their parents didn't want them associating with these people and me when they were in town. The girls kept busy going to summer camp, practicing the piano, spying on boys they liked, and some getting into a lot of trouble. One summer I had a friend from Texas staying with me and she stated that she never had such fun during the summer, ever! I never had a problem or a bad day during the time I spent with my seasonal friends running from the beach, to the track, and Tijuana. It was exhilarating and a great experience.