DECEMBER 30, 1988, SPORTS
Copyright 1988/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
A Little Music Would Not Hurt Del Mar
Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien and a few of their cronies opened it as kind of their very own horse parlour. It wasn’t really meant for the general public.
It was opened in the no-man’s land, the (then) still virginal territory between the beginning-to-boom marketing areas of Los Angeles and San Diego.
They built a gorgeous, postal card clubhouse, a cross between a Spanish mission and a 1930s movie palace, and a good time was had by all.
It didn’t cost all that much to build a racetrack of one’s own in the Depression-gripped 1930s, a time when movie people alone had a corner on most of the money earned in this country. Steel mills might be shutting down, soup kitchens might be opening up, but people still found dimes to go to the Saturday matinees and dream.
Money was never really the point of the Del Mar racetrack, camaraderie was. Which was a good thing because money was not flowing. A track 110 miles from the horseplayers put too great a strain on their love for longshots. The year Del Mar opened, its daily average attendance was 4,654 and the handle was $101,104 a day. That same year, Santa Anita was averaging 18,541 a day and a handle of $653,820. Hollywood Park was to draw 16,708 a day with a handle of $499,882.
But Del Mar made up in charm what it lacked in coin. It came to be serenaded as the “Saratoga of the West.” Where the surf met the turf. But it was not so stuffy as its Eastern counterpart; you didn’t have to wear
a hat or carry a parasol at Del Mar, and it had amenities the New York track couldn’t offer. The Pacific Ocean on its home stretch, for example.
You could find Harry James and Betty Grable there almost any afternoon when they were two of the biggest names in show business. Crosby and Bob Hope were on the road to Del Mar constantly. Jimmy Durante bet there. So did, of all people, J. Edgar Hoover, at a time when he was America’s invisible government. It was the FBI director’s favorite recreation spot.
As the megalopolis to the north and the mini-megalopolis to the south grew, so did Del Mar. But not disproportionately. The handle crept from $2,224,301 its first year to $23,846,789 the year after the Second World War. It hit $166,033,640 last year. Bing and Pat’s little hideaway horse parlor became very big business indeed.
It has never been thought of as such. It has been run by the 22nd Agricultural District as a cross between a public library and crap game. Bing bowed out because he always hankered to own a big league baseball team, and when the chance came up, in those more puritanical times, he had to make a choice between owning the Pittsburgh Pirates and owning a racetrack. Or even a racehorse.
The track was operated for about 20 years by the Texas megabucks combine of Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, proceeds to a charity called Boys Inc.
But Del Mar is 50 years old. Its picturesque grandstand is considered seismically unsafe. It must be replaced. By whom and with what has become a major issue in San Diego County. Estimated cost: $75 million to $100 million.
There are 3 groups bidding for the next 20-year lease to operate the track: (1) The entrenched management now operating the club under lease, who propose two decades more of status quo with the grandstand to be built if and when revenues warrant it; (2) John Brunetti, operator of Hialeah Race Track in Florida, who proposes addition of a 10th race daily to up the take, and (3) A joint venture group consisting of the Ogden Corporation, a concessionaire and airline maintenance conglomerate, and James Nederlander, a theatre magnate, who propose to build the new grandstand at their own expense.
The rub? Ogden-Nederlander want to use the facility in the off-season for “entertainment and non-racing events.” Opponents hiss: “Rock concerts!” Ogden-Nederlander counter: “Bolshoi Ballet!”
Ogden-Nederlander foresee a kind of Hollywood Bowl South. Opponents see motorcycle gangs.
Is it time for Bing’s dark-eyed little senorita to shuck the lace-mantilla past and join the world of commerce and contracts? Will it be like his other little crony lawn party, the golf tournament, that now is an AT&T extravaganza?
On the face of it, it looks like a match race between Man o’ War and a claimer. The private-sector option promises the massive and necessary construction at no cost to the taxpayers — and at no great damage to the neighborhood.
“Who ever heard of Nureyev breaking up a neighborhood?” demands Neil Papiano, lawyer for the Ogden-Nederlander group. “Is the Boston Pops going to pollute the air? People don’t come on motorcycles to see La Boheme.”
His position and the position of his clients (Nederlander is a resident of nearby Carlsbad himself) is that the facility needs the transfusion from the private sector to even survive.
“Our plan is to upgrade the facility at no cost to the state, the taxpayer, the community. So far as we know, there are no other funds ready for this purpose. These are stands which were thrown together as a tribute to palship by Crosby and his buddies a half-century ago. The facilities are outmoded, even dangerous, but the present operators offer no proposal for restoration other than to trust the matter to the state. Our proposal requires no legislative approval, no expenditure of state funds, no gubernatorial signature.
“The plain facts of the matter would seem to be that there are no funds available from the state for the project, that the reality is the new grandstand is going to be built by private funds or it is not going to be built at all. We see a symphonies-by-the-sea program as a valuable adjunct to the racing program and an essential support to the racetrack.”
In short, a little night music would seem to be in prospect for Bing’s playhouse by the sea. It’s hard to believe Der Bingle could object to that — where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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A dozen years ago, Linda McCoy-Murray compiled a book of Jim Murray’s columns on female athletes (1961-1998). While the book is idle waiting for an interested publisher, the JMMF thinks this is an appropriate year to get the book on the shelves, i.e., Jim Murray’s 100th birthday, 1919-2019.
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