Column: Pandemic empties grandstand for Del Mar racetrack opener like no other

Opening Day at the Del Mar Race Track 2020.
Horses run in front of an empty grandstand Friday during opening day at Del Mar racetrack. Coronavirus concerns limited the track, which hosted more than 30,000, to essential personnel only.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Coronavirus rules limit track, which normally hosts a rowdy, stylish throng to kick off summer


The strangest opening day at Del Mar racetrack since Bing Crosby welcomed well-heeled bettors to the spot where the turf meets the surf in 1937 offered a cocktail of the surreal, serious and silly.

A horse racing meet kickoff unlike all others unfolded Friday in front of masked workers and disarming silence.

Hats the size of overflowing house plants? Gone. A sea of fashion choices that would make the red carpet at the Academy Awards blush? Benched. Buzzed, sunburned 20-somethings squinting at phone screens? Sober, for now.

When jockey Umberto Rispoli scooped up the first race in Del Mar’s COVID-19 era aboard Secret Touch, the slap of soft riding crops became as audible as sneakers on a basketball court in an empty gym. A San Diego social happening shared annually by 40,000? Try 40.

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club CEO Joe Harper, the hand-shaking, back-slapping ambassador for the track, built a reputation for touring the grounds as he engaged everyone from actress Bo Derek to rail birds. County rules allowing only essential personnel emptied the yawning grandstand.

Harper shrugged.

“I love walking through and talking to everyone,” he said. “It’s like watching those TV shows that used to be in front of a live audience, now they’re at home with no audience. The timing’s not there. It’s awkward. It’s like a comic telling jokes in a closet.

“I’m a little embarrassed to take a paycheck, since that’s what I’ve done for a living. But I’ve gotten used to Groundhog Day. This is all part of it.”

Del Mar’s charge into the health pandemic’s great unknown, four legs at a time, is providing a steeling lesson in navigating adversity and change.

Start with jockey Victor Espinoza, a $203 million earner who won the 2015 Triple Crown aboard American Pharoah. At the start of the day, he was scheduled for mounts in the seventh, eighth and ninth races. Then, he wasn’t.

Turns out he shared relatively close quarters with Martin Garcia, a jockey who now has COVID-19. When Espinoza developed sniffles this week, he decided to get a test. Track stewards required a negative test result before allowing him to saddle up.

The deadline came … and went.

Late Friday, Espinoza’s agent confirmed to the Union-Tribune he tested positive.

Add in a recent positive test for Luis Saez, who is not riding at Del Mar this week but was around many jockeys here while at Los Alamitos, and the swirl caused officials to change jockey protocols on the fly.

Del Mar President Josh Rubinstein said the track now will require any jockey arriving from out of state or anyone who makes a trip outside California for a race to provide a negative test result at least 72 hours before competing.

Even with a negative result, the jockey will stay in an auxiliary room. The person would need a second negative test before being allowed to re-enter the main colony.

Rubinstein also confirmed a track employee — someone on the front side, in racing operations — recently tested positive for COVID-19. That’s only the second case since the pandemic began, but each surely unsettles anew.

Everything these days, even at the track, is written in pencil rather than pen. Decision-makers continue to mold with wet clay.

“It’s all surreal, to say the least,” Rubinstein said. “But we’re grateful to be racing.”

When announcer Larry Collmus offered a track welcome, it seemed like the philosophical debate about a tree falling in the forest. As the words bellowed from the public-address system, no one was around to hear it.

“Good afternoon everyone,” Collmus said.

Sounds from the trumpet of Les Kepics, pursing his lips for a 36th opener, echoed oddly in the coastal breeze. Normally, Kepics would cause hips to wiggle and toes to tap as he whimsically wandered off the musical script.

Trainer Bob Baffert, the silver-haired, sunglasses-wearing face of the sport, was surprised to learn the winner’s circle would not be used. There was no truth to the rumor it was because he could be charged for loitering.

As Baffert left the track after a pair of his horses ran in the third race, he joked about pulling into the neighboring “fair food cul-de-sac” established in the parking lot after the popular Del Mar Fair was shuttered.

“I might have to get some giant turkey legs for supper,” he said.

Opening Day at the Del Mar Race Track 2020
Trainer Bob Baffert watches Friday as horses are escorted to the track during opening day at Del Mar racetrack.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A pair of opening day regulars strained to keep personal history afloat. El Cajon’s Tom Loveday joined friend and horse owner Jeff Hayes for an hourlong round trip to Del Mar, simply to snap a picture in front of the Don Diego statue.

The 16-foot, bronze front porch has welcomed tens of thousands to opening day with a frozen smile and caballero’s hat in hand. To their thinking, the photographic evidence means the streak of attending 40 straight openers became 41 — even if it came with an asterisk.

Another tradition stayed intact, as well.

“We had a tequila shot, like we do every opening day,” said Loveday, admitting the bracer arrived at 8:30 a.m. “Opening day at Del Mar is a big party. I just don’t even have the words, how strange it is.”

Del Mar rolled with the many punches.

Craig Dado, Del Mar’s executive vice president in charge of marketing, hustled to recruit 20 bars and restaurants to hold watch parties in the area. When the county shut down indoor dining, plans melted.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “The bars and restaurants stepped up and were excited about it.”

For each high, a low. For each ebb, a flow. For each moment of traction, uncertain footing awaits.

Strange and silent days, indeed.

-- Bryce Miller is a sports columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune