"That sounds like fun, but I wouldn't know what to do," my friends all said when thinking about going to the Del Mar Race Track. Frankly, we didn't know either, but now we're here to share our experiences with you. If you visit San Diego during the racing season, the Del Mar Race Track is an inexpensive, fun place to spend some time.
Forget any stereotypes you might have of some pathetic gambler, betting his last nickel at a dingy, run-down track, surrounded by a cadre of his peers. Originally owned by singer Bing Crosby, the Del Mar Race Track is a gracious reminder of an elegant, bygone era. And while race track attendance may be going down in other places, Del Mar sets new records annually.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching a horse race from a seat at the Del Mar Race Track instead of your couch is that you get to see events unfold: meticulous track preparations, jockeys getting ready and parading onto the track, riders escorting each racehorse onto the track and to the starting gate. You'll find lots of lively folks at Del Mar, and the excitement factor as the horses round the last bend makes the crowd seem twice as large as it was a couple of minutes before.
On a fundamental level, The Del Mar Race Track is very simple. A handful of beautiful, thoroughbred horses race around an oval track. People watch and cheer for their favorites. Some bet, others just come to watch. You'll find people of all ages and lots of families on weekends.
The day we went, there were ten races, starting about every half hour. The race itself only lasts a couple of very exciting minutes, peaking as the horses come around the last curve, headed for the finish line. In between, the pace is slow, and a table for four in one of the dining areas is a good way to spend a leisurely afternoon with friends.
Del Mar Race Track Basics
- Racing season at the Del Mar Race Track runs from late July through early September and again in November
- Closed Mondays and Tuesdays
- Races are at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
- Friday races start at 4:00 p.m. on the first four Fridays and 3:30 p.m. after that
- The once-a-year Pacific Classic starts at 1:00 p.m. Opening Day also starts early.
- Gates open 2 hours before the first race
Getting to Del Mar Race Track
- Del Mar Race Track
- 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd.
- Del Mar, CA 92014
- Del Mar Race Track website
The Del Mar Race Track is at the San Diego County Fairgrounds in north San Diego County, 20 miles north of downtown San Diego and 100 miles south of Los Angeles. Find directions and other forms of transportation at the race track website.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary admission for the purpose of reviewing the Del Mar Race Track. While it has not influenced this review, TripSavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
Tickets and Seating Options
Most days, you can get into the general admission areas at Del Mar without a reservation, but you'll need them for the best boxes, reserved seats, and dining locations any time. Plan ahead for Opening Day, the day of the Pacific Classic race and any race that features an especially popular horse. Even if you're going to pay at the gate, it helps to know ahead of time how the seating works.
At first glance, all the seating options at Del Mar can seem quite confusing, but it's easy enough when you break it down.
- Which Side? Races vary in length, starting at different points around the track, but the finish line is always in the same place. The seating areas are on the finish line side of the track, and it divides them into two sections called Stretch Run and Clubhouse. Stretch Run is the slightly less expensive of the two.
- General Admission or Reserved Seats? General admission is inexpensive, but that fee only gets you in the door. You could bring your own chairs to set up in the general admission area, stand at the rail and watch or reserve a seat. For more money, you can get a simple reserved seat or a box in both sections. Most seats are on the first three levels (which you can see in the photo), with a few reserved seats on levels 4 and 5. The lower you sit, the less you can see of the far side of the track, but the further away the horses will be at the finish line.
- Trackside Dining: You dine trackside in any of three locations. Tables seat only four people, and if you reserve the table, you have to reserve all four places. The menu varies, but don't expect haute cuisine here, just a decent bite to eat. It's fun to do, and the meal helps pass the time between races. The reservation system will clue you in about whether your seat will be in the sun or not.
Buying Del Mar Race Tickets
You can buy Del Mar Race Track tickets online (beginning in mid-May each year) or get them by phone at 858-792-4242.
Free Admission to Del Mar
Active Duty Military personnel and their dependents get into the Stretch Run section free every day. Bring your military ID to get this benefit. Children 17 years and younger also get in free, but they must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian at all times.
If you join the Del Mar Diamond Club, you can get half-price admission at any time and get in free on Wednesdays.
Parking costs extra.
More Things to Do at Del Mar - Concerts and Activities
Del Mar Concerts
The most important add-on to the horse racing at Del Mar Race Track is the concerts. They follow the races every Friday and some Saturdays. You can find the schedule on their website. If you arrive before the seventh race, the concerts are free. Arrive later, and the price is still reasonable for the level of talent they showcase.
The concert area is standing room only, with no reservations and they never sell out. Your best bet is to get there early.
More Things to Do While You're at the Del Mar Race Track
Most importantly, don't just stay stuck in your seat. Watch a race or two from each of several spots: Take in the race preparations and watch the first couple of races from your reserved seat. Then go out to the Walking Ring to see the jockeys get their horses ready and watch them walk into the track. Stand at the railing near the finish line for another race or two, where you'll get the best feel of the animals and their power. Finally, find the Infield Tunnel entrance and watch from there.
On your way in or out, don't miss the mural. It shows a mix of jockeys, movie stars and other celebrities having a fun day at the races.
You Betcha! How to Bet (Or Not)
When you first arrive at the Del Mar Race Track in San Diego, it may seem as if everyone around you is speaking a foreign language, talking about trifectas and quinellas, parlays and posts. They have a good time with it, but if this is your first horse race, you just need to know a few things to have some good fun.
First, you don't have to bet at all. We didn't, and we had a great time just picking our favorites, rooting for them and letting the winner gloat. My sweetie's track record on three races: second, first and third place. Mine: last, next to last and last again. Our methods? I picked names I liked, and he picked names that reminded him of favorite foods.
That brings up an important point. We've been told that even the professionals only get their bets right about half the time, so we suggest a laid-back, fun approach instead of over-thinking your first race.
The minimum bet at Del Mar is $2. The "win price" is what you get back on that $2 if you make the right pick. Bet $2, and if the win price is $4.75 and your horse places where you bet it would, that's what you win. After that, just multiply. Bet $20 with a win price of $4.75 and you get $47.50.
For the simplest bet types, this is all you need to know:
- Win: You're betting that your horse will finish first, and you get a payout only if it does. According to the Del Mar website, the favorite horse in the race finishes first about 30% of the time.
- Place: This is a bet that your horse will come in first or second, and you'll get paid if it's in either place (but a lower amount than for a win bet). About 45% of the time, the favorite will "place."
- Show: You've probably got it by now - this one is a bet that the horse will be in the first three. It has the lowest payout, but the highest chance of success. Favorites "show" more than 60% of the time.
You'll find a brief analysis of each race in the front of the program you get at the gate, including which horses are the favorites. You'll find people all over the place having long, technical discussions about what horse to bet on, but that's too complicated for a first visit. Just for fun, choose your horse by its name, number or the color of the jockey's uniform. They're all listed in the program.
Placing Your Bet
It's very simple, and there are several betting counters and machines all around the track. You do need to know a bit of lingo, though. After you've picked that nice black horse because you like his jockey's green and purple shirt, don't go up to the teller and say "I want to bet $2 to show on the black horse whose rider is wearing green and purple." If your horse is #7 in the third race, you need to say it this way: "Del Mar, Third Race, $2.00 to show on #7." The teller will enter your bet and give you a ticket. If you win, take it back and collect.
If you need help, Del Mar has assistants on each floor of the Grandstand and Clubhouse. They wear teal vests and khaki pants or skirts. They're there to help people like you.
Tips for Enjoying the Del Mar Race Track
These tips will help you have as much fun as you can at Del Mar:
- If you're looking for a place to stay while visiting the Del Mar Race Track, you can't do better than the Grand Del Mar.
- Don't worry too much about where you park. If you don't want to walk, you can catch a tram to the front gate.
- Local San Diego families think the infield is a good place to watch with the kids. To get there, go past the end of the Stretch Run seating and use the tunnel that goes under the track.
- Don't be fooled like we were. The handicapping seminar offered before the race is for people who know about betting on horse races and not useful to the first-timer.
- Ladies who love to wear hats, this is your place. The bigger, the better. They even have a best hat contest on opening day. Dress up if you want to, but it isn't required.
- The track opens two hours before the first race, and they raise the flag about an hour ahead of time. Try to be there by then to take in all the preparations.
- Binoculars will help you see the horses better when they're on the far side of the track - if you care. We just enjoyed watching them running so fast and smoothly that they looked like they were on wheels.
- Bring sun screen, hats, sunglasses. It can get hot in the stands on a summer afternoon. But check the weather first. Del Mar is close to the ocean, and it can also be cool if the inland marine layer lingers all day.
Seabiscuit and Other Famous Horses at Del Mar
If you enjoyed the film or book Seabiscuit, Del Mar is where a big part of the story happened.
On August 12, 1938, the great legendary racehorse, Seabiscuit, came to Del Mar for his epic race against Ligaroti. 12,000 people showed up to watch while the rest of the country listened on the radio. It was a brutal race that resulted in both jockeys getting a short suspension, but in the end, Seabiscuit, with George "Iceman" Woolf riding, won by a nose.
California was Sea Biscuit's home, and he retired to his owner's ranch in Mendocino County. Fortuitously, the ranch has been preserved almost like it was when Sea Biscuit lived there. Here's how you can take a tour.