Four-fifteen of a turquoise afternoon. Cloudless, becalmed, estival. Wind bearing east off the ocean, eight knots and ebbing. Trays of iced tea floating through the Turf Club at Del Mar, two knots and tinkling. Sea gulls circling the infield lake, their flaps and landing gear down, hovering.
Gerry Okuneff looked up from a chair in his grandstand box, over the copy of the Daily Racing Form he was holding, and inhaled the wind but missed the gulls. The burly, balding, 57-year-old former UCLA linebacker, now a parttime Hollywood stuntman and actor and a full-time professional horseplayer, leaned forward in his seat.
"Hey, Pete," said Okuneff. "What about your horse today?"
Pete Accardy was the co-owner of a son of Danzig named Asia, one of the favorites in the $75,000 El Cajon Stakes, a race blown open earlier in the day when a gray bullet named Cee's Tizzy was scratched. Post time for the El Cajon, a 1[1/16]-mile adventure around the main course at Del Mar, was still three races away, but Okuneff was already nearing a mild state of suspended exasperation, trying to unravel the mysteries of this quirky oval and to divine the secrets of the El Cajon. The race was the eighth of the day, making it the third event in the late Daily Triple, a wagering gimmick that challenged the bettor to pick the winners of the sixth, seventh and eighth races.
Accardy drifted closer. Okuneff came to his feet. "A big, big chance to win," Accardy said. "Warcraft will be the favorite, but Asia has got a big shot. There's not much lick in the race, and he could sit up close. He was right behind Cee's Tizzy in his last race."
Okuneff nodded. "You gonna sit up about second, now that Tizzy's out of there?" he asked.
"I think we'll be either on the lead or right behind Shinko Wine," Accardy said, referring to another speedball. "We're faster than Warcraft."
Okuneff shook his head. "You don't want to run with Shinko," the handicapper said. "He's coming off a sprint."
Accardy shrugged. "Hope not," he said.
It was the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 5, 1990, and Okuneff was poring over his books and charts like a 12th-century ascetic, studying, as he had been for weeks, up to 10 hours a day, searching through nine races a day for the Way, the Truth and the Light—here for the beast that would get him even, there for the big score to get him out. Only seven days remained in the season at Del Mar, the celebrated gambling Gomorrah by the sea, 20 miles up the coast from San Diego, and Okuneff, after 35 days of playing the horses, was out more than $800. Of course, there are no moral victories for professional horseplayers, for whom the bottom line ends only where the flat line begins; nevertheless, there was a saving grace for Okuneff, and it was that he woke up every morning with the unbridled expectations of a man facing another day in paradise.
"It's a little bit of heaven," said Okuneff. "There's nothing to compare to it. The sunsets, the California hardbodies, the beaches, the restaurants, the weather, the horses. I've been to tracks all over, but none has more joy about it than Del Mar. Can you imagine a more pleasant place to bet money, win or lose? When that gate opens for the first race in front of the grandstand on opening day, there's a roar from the crowd like at a football game."
The place has always had an intoxicating lure to it, and visitors coming to Del Mar for a day have been known to disappear from sight, as if they had stumbled into Brigadoon. Back in 1949, while his wife, Lucille Ball, was making a picture called Fancy Pants with Bob Hope, bandleader Desi Arnaz dropped in for a day of racing and fishing. He never threw a line in the water, but he went to the races for a week and ended up spending most of the summer at the track. Arnaz eventually bought a home along the beach near Del Mar, where he used to serenade beachcombers, the incoming tide and the starfish that washed up in its wake, often to the strains of Babaloo. Arnaz lived two doors from comedian Jimmy Durante and two more from Del Mar regular Robert Strauss, then an emerging power broker in the Democratic party—the Watergate burglars were caught in Strauss's office, among others, at party headquarters in 1972—and today President Bush's ambassador-designate to the Soviet Union.
"They were at the racetrack and partying there all afternoon," recalls Strauss, "and then they'd go home and party all night. Desi would be drinking and he'd get out on his balcony and sing. And Durante, on the beach, would yell back up to him. Tell jokes and yell back and forth. My wife, Helen, and I were part of the audience. They couldn't just play to each other. They had to have a crowd. I loved 'em. Del Mar is a way of life. Once you sec this racecourse and get a feel for this place, it's like a drug. You can't turn it loose. You just relax differently here than you do anyplace else."
So it's no wonder to any of Del Mar's thousands of habituès—to anyone who has heard the wind chimes off the surf or counted the bikinis in the crowd or lolled on the infield grass in the sun, watching the horses bound around the Jimmy Durante Turf Course—that Del Mar has emerged as one of the strongest, most popular thoroughbred race meetings in America. In fact, since Del Mar joined Southern California's intertrack wagering system in 1988—allowing crowds to wager on Del Mar races at 13 satellite betting sites, including Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos in the Los Angeles area—it has been the preeminent betting venue in the land.
By the end of the 1990 meeting, which ran 43 days, from July 25 through Sept. 12, the combined on-track and off-track handle for Del Mar races had reached a record $323 million, or a staggering $7.5 million a day. Nearly $3 million of that was handled on-track, where as many as 26,548 straw-hatted, tie-dyed horseplayers would drag themselves off the beach after a morning dip and hum along with Bing Crosby's scratchy recording of the track's anthem, a ditty piped over the loudspeaker system at the beginning and end of each day:
Where the turf meets the surf
Down at old Del Mar
Take a plane, take a train, take a car.
There's a smile on every face
And a winner in each race
Where the surf meets the turf at
Crosby and actor Pat O'Brien were the forces behind the building of Del Mar in the 1930s, and when the track opened on July 3, 1937, there they were, greeting dubious horseplayers and mingling with the curious tourists who had come down on the train from Los Angeles. Clara Weitzenhoffer, a Del Mar regular who has sat in the same clubhouse box for 30 years, and her parents were among the first arrivals that day. "Bing and Pat were standing by the gate," she says. "They gave us cotton scarves and shook hands with us."
At the time, Del Mar was just a crook in the road between Los Angeles and San Diego, and the track was more of a sprawling country fair than a serious racing and gambling venue. Crosby's presence quickly turned the track into what it is still known as today: "The Saratoga of the West." For years, Del Mar was a summer haunt for Bing and his friends, a kind of saltwater spa, a place where the Hollywood crowd came to play. It was the only racetrack in America where Gary Cooper and Oliver Hardy served as officers of the board. Betty Grable used to show up every summer with her husband, Harry James, the bandleader and trumpet player. They owned a stable of horses, and James loved the betting windows. At night, he and Grable would dine at places like the old Del Mar Hotel, and after dinner she would nudge him and say: "Pops, get out your trumpet."
So Harry would play his magical instrument solo, with only the surf for accompaniment, and the night was begun. "It was beautiful," recalls Bud Baedeker, who sold tip sheets for the races. "The crowd would gather out on the patio and maybe Dan Dailey would dance, and pretty soon 200 people were out there. The show would go on until two in the morning."
Every Saturday night, after the races, Crosby would throw a party in the Turf Club. "Bing would walk through the clubhouse and invite 150 people, hand-pick them," recalls actor Jackie Cooper, a Del Mar regular since he was a boy. "The minute the last race was over, they'd set up the tables. An orchestra played dance music all night, and Bing would sing."
It often became a loose-jointed, impromptu variety show, with guests from the audience invited onstage to perform. Mickey Rooney would tap-dance. Or Bob Hope would tell jokes and needle his old friend Bing: "Holy smoke! There's the laughin' loser." Or Hoagy Carmichael would end up playing the piano, Star Dust and other sweet things. Or Danny Kaye would mug and dance. Or Joe Frisco, the softly stuttering comic, would crack his racetrack one-liners, most of which played on his reputation as an inveterate loser: "I came by the racetrack today but it was closed, so I just sh-shoved the money under the door." Or Durante would get up and sing Inka Dinka Doo, break up a piano and close with the melancholy refrain, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."
Crosby may have helped found Del Mar Racetrack, but those two beloved comedians Durante and Frisco remain the enduring spirits of the place. The only handicapper worse than Frisco was Durante, who had a bulletin board in his New York dressing room on which he hung charts showing the bets he had made that day with bookies. "If he lost, the bookies would give him back 50 percent," says his widow, Margie, "so he could keep betting." On some Del Mar days, if enough shifties got his ear, Durante would end up with a bet on practically every horse in each race. At the end of his longest afternoons, as a gag, he would leave the track with his pants pockets turned inside out and flopping at his sides.
Durante died in 1980, but Margie can see him yet: "I picture him walking through the clubhouse, mumbling to himself and going to the windows, and all the touts walking up to him and giving him a horse and him saying, 'Are you sure that's gonna win?' I see him fishing in the ocean. I think he taught every kid on the beach how to fish. One of the little kids called the ocean 'Uncle Jimmy's pool.' "
At times, after the seventh race, Durante would drive to the hill overlooking the backstretch fence, facing the grandstand, and sit alone to watch the eighth. "And he would wave to me," Margie says.
Frisco was a lovable wanderer who addressed everyone as "My good man" and whose various humiliations at the Del Mar windows became the fabric of his comic legend. A parlay player, always plowing his winnings onto a horse in the next race, he often lost spectacularly, but he turned his misadventures into an endless stage routine. When a horse he kept betting on persisted in making a right turn to the outside fence, Frisco suggested to his trainer that he insert some lead in beast's left ear to keep him straight.
"That's an interesting idea, Joe," the trainer replied, "but how do you get the lead in there?"
"With a g-goddam gun," said Frisco.
No one ever knew when or where Frisco might turn up, and he was forever looking for a lift to and from the racetrack. Asked how he had done at the races, Joe would say, "I had a great day. I got a r-ride home." Baedeker was selling his tip sheet in front of the Del Mar gate one morning when a laundry truck pulled up. "There's a guy in the back who wants to see you," said the driver. Baedeker peeked inside the open back door and there was Frisco, sitting on a pile of dirty laundry and smoking a cigar. Climbing from the truck, Frisco straightened himself, flicked his cigar and asked, "What do you like today, my g-good man?"
Summer after summer, even after Crosby sold his stock in the track in 1946, an unending parade of the most familiar faces in America showed up at the "will call" booth in the clubhouse of Del Mar. There were W.C. Fields and Al Jolson, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner and Dorothy Lamour, George Raft and Red Skelton, Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, Don Ameche and George Jessel, Elizabeth Taylor and Paulette Goddard, Louis B. Mayer and Cecil B. deMille. And, of course, all the brothers, from Ritz to Marx to Karamazov. The stream of swells became so unremitting that turf writers, ensconced in the aerie of the press box, used to bet on how long it would take a celebrity, navigating through the crush of back-slappers and autograph seekers, to make his way from a ceremonial appearance in the winner's circle back to his box seat. The beloved former heavyweight champion of the world Jack Dempsey set the endurance record for the distance: no less than 30 minutes.
For the children of the owners and the trainers, spending summers at Del Mar was like growing up on some vast seaside movie lot. Trainer Gary Jones, the son of a horseman, remembers the morning when he and a cousin threw their lines into the water off the beach at 23rd Street. All at once, like a mermaid emerging from the deep, Betty Grable came walking unevenly toward them out of the ocean, soaking wet but with all her clothes on. "I don't know what she was doing there, but she had this white blouse on," says Jones, "and it looked like she had been in a wet T-shirt contest, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, jeez, look at that.' I was 14! What a way to grow up. Only at Del Mar."
The kids gamboled all day at the beach and track, playing games in the hot sand, draping themselves over the fence to watch the races. Trainer Eddie Gregson, 52, the grandson of a racehorse owner, began vacationing at Del Mar when he was an infant. "The kids would have softball games on the beach with Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Harry James and Mickey Rooney," Gregson says. "Betty Grable was everybody's mascot. Rooney was the most gung-ho of all. Everybody knew everybody. It was all very folksy."
Jones, 47, remembers his childhood around Del Mar as Twain must have remembered his in Hannibal, Mo.: as a perpetual adventure in which the days chased one another like puppies chasing sticks. The Jones family lived every summer near a 100-cabin campsite called Seaside Village, hard by the surf of Solana Beach. "Seaside Village was like a paradise for kids," Jones says. "It was loaded with racetrackers, and the little kids of racetrackers, and you knew everyone. You'd go surfing, hiking, fishing. There were caves all along there, and we kids would go searching in them. All day long! At night, everyone came out and lit bonfires and we'd have a big party on the beach, all night long. We'd have 80 kids playing a huge game of hide-and-go-seek. You could walk from bonfire to bonfire. Can you imagine what that was like for a kid? Barbecues every night? Singing. Partying. Fires blazing."
Come morning, Jones would be back at the beach to watch the horses racing by. For years, trainers regularly took their horses from the barns to the ocean to let them swim in the healing salt water or roll in the sand or work out on the firm ribbon of beach lapped by the waves. Bad-legged horses thrived on Del Mar's beaches. "It was the ideal way to breeze a horse," says Gregson, "especially if he had a bowed tendon. There was perfect footing with a lot of bounce to it, and they were running in a straight line, so there was no stress from making turns."
The exercise was not without its perils. A fine colt named Bagdad, spooked by a passing train as he walked under the trestle, leaped for cover into a nearby lagoon and started thrashing helplessly around. Then his rider jumped off, though he couldn't swim, and he started thrashing around with the horse. So trainer Joe Dunn jumped in after them, and in all the confusion, he later recalled, "I thought I was gonna drown. All I could think of was calling his owner and saying, 'I'm sorry, sir, but Bagdad drowned this morning.' " Somehow all three found shore.
Just because a horse made it under the trestle, however, didn't necessarily mean it got back to the barn. "You had to be careful swimmin' them in the ocean," recalled retired jockey Bill Shoemaker. "Careful not to let them get away from you. They'd swim out there and keep going. You had to turn them around. One got lost once. He got away from his boy and took off swimming and just kept going. Nobody ever saw him again."
In the track's early decades, for all this salubrious galloping and swimming, no one ever confused the horses at Del Mar with those at Saratoga, where Hall of Fame cracks such as Man o' War, Native Dancer and Secretariat never swam a lick. But things have gotten better. In fact, the class of horses at Del Mar has improved dramatically over the years, rising as the track grew fat financially. With purses based on a percentage of the handle, pots have lately swelled to the point where they are among the highest in the nation. Not that old Del Mar, country and western as it was, didn't have its moments as a battleground for the dueling banjos of the breed.
Old-timers such as racetrackers Charlie Whittingham and Sonny Greenberg still recall with relish the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 12, 1938, when the immortal Seabiscuit, owned by Charles S. Howard, did battle with an Argentine-bred flyer named Ligaroti, owned by Crosby and Howard's son, Lindsay. With Crosby himself involved, a $25,000 winner's pot and the rivalry between old man Howard and his son—in a side bet, Charles laid $15,000 on Seabiscuit to Lindsay's $5,000 on Ligaroti—the race became the event of the year in American racing, a Southern California happening. More than 20,000 souls crammed into the clubhouse and grandstand. All sorts of Hollywood stuntmen and extras, pals of Bing's, flocked in to see the show, many arriving on the last train to the races out of L.A.
By then the arrival of that iron monster, Santa Fe's "Racetrack Special," was a betting event in itself. Clanging its bells, spouting steam, its whistle blasting, the train would announce its coming. When it was late it arrived to thunderous cheers, for tradition held that the races could not begin until the special had unloaded its passengers and given them a chance to play the first race. So there was always a frantic scurrying of fresh customers from the depot to the windows, with the Santa Fe trainmen not far behind. "The engineer and brakeman and the others were carrying bets for the railroad workers up in L.A.," says Baedeker.
On the day of the Seabiscuit-Ligaroti match race, the clubhouse was festooned with signs. "There were rooting sections for both horses," says Greenberg. No one knew quite what to expect, what with the mighty Seabiscuit, carrying 130 pounds, facing this ballyhooed bay from the Pampas, under 115 pounds, over 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles. "Oh, Christ!" recalls Greenberg. "It was the most fantastic match race in history. Start to finish." George (the Iceman) Woolf sent Seabiscuit sailing to the lead out of the gate, but by the time they had slanted off the first turn, jockey Noel (Spec) Richardson had driven Ligaroti to Seabiscuit's throat. So they stayed, nearly head and head, the whole way around, in what turned out to be one of the damnedest, daringest, hairiest struggles in the history of the American turf.
"The jockeys were beating the crap out of each other all the way," recalls Whittingham, who was Richardson's agent at the time. "Spec had a hold of Seabiscuit's saddle!"
The stretch drive was a spectacle. "They whipped each other with their whips, grabbed each other's legs, pulled on each other's reins," says Greenberg. "I never saw anything like it. Roughest race I ever saw, here or anywhere."
Seabiscuit ended up winning it by a nose, to a ringing ovation from the fans, but the stewards were not cheering. In fact, they were furious over the rodeo, which left Woolf grousing to Baedeker: "If I hit Spec once. I hit the sonofabitch 50 times, but the stewards only counted 22. Hey, he hit me 75 times!"
The stewards suspended both jockeys. "They gave 'em each a month," recalls Whittingham. "They couldn't even come to the races. Spec started coming to Del Mar with a false beard and dark glasses."
William Murray has never had cause to don a disguise to pass through the Del Mar gates, though he has occasionally left the cashier windows in a state of euphoria, feeling quite like a thief in the night as, counting his lucre, he slipped off to the parking lot to make his getaway. Murray first came to Del Mar in 1966, and over the years, with an artist's passion and horseplayer's joie de vivre, he has come to embody the way of life this racetrack represents. Opera singer, novelist, New Yorker staff writer, gambler, raconteur, he is probably fluent in more disciplines than any racetracker who ever lived, and he is no doubt the only American of that species who freely quotes Gioacchino Rossini, the Italian composer. As if expressing a metaphor for every racetracker's life, Murray recalls Rossini's remark after hearing Wagner's Tannh‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üuser. "It has some very beautiful moments, and some very long quarters of an hour."
Murray has known such moments at Del Mar. In 1967 he became a thoroughbred owner when he and four others invested $33,000 in a 2-year-old colt named War Flag. The horse promptly broke his maiden at Del Mar. The sight of War Flag barreling off the pace to take the lead, then racing full throttle to the wire, silks flying, was as unforgettable as any Murray had ever beheld. "It was incredible," he said. "I jumped up and down. I broke the unbreakable crystal on my wristwatch. Smashed it. I popped two buttons on my jacket. My wallet flew out of my pocket. I made about $1,400 betting on him. And we all thought we were on our way to the Kentucky Derby. He never won another race for us."
Now here was Murray in 1990 with another horse, a juvenile filly named Ultra Sass, trying to do it all over again. On the advice of trainer Brian Mayberry, who had found the filly at a Florida farm, Murray and four others had bought her for $30,000 early in the year. Murray and his wife, Alice, got caught up in the adventure of it. "It's like buying a shaft of a rainbow," Alice said. "It's magic."
"No wonder the ancient Greeks loved horses," said Bill. "How could you not? I've never seen anything more beautiful, and I was raised in Italy."
The Murrays live only three miles from Del Mar, and he rarely missed a morning visiting the filly at the Mayberry barn, indulging her with hours of attention and bunches of carrots. "Everybody says you shouldn't get too close to your horses," he said. "Bad things happen to them, and I suppose that's true, but if you have no connection with them, what's the point? Besides, she has a lovely personality. She's all business on the racetrack, and when you're around her, she's like a big dog."
It was time for business when jockey Julio Garcia climbed aboard Ultra Sass in the Del Mar paddock, in the shadow of the old adobe clubhouse, with its Spanish bell tower rising above the flower beds and the palms. It was Sept. 6, and time for the sixth race, a six-furlong buzz for maiden babies. Ultra Sass had finished third in her only start at Del Mar, on Aug. 10, after flashing some speed, and now the crowd was making her a tepid 5-2 favorite in the field of 12. Murray glanced at his program in the walking ring and shifted his feet nervously. These had been long days of work and play—rising at dawn to get to the barns, rehearsing at night in San Diego's Balboa Park for his role in The Beggar's Opera, playing the horses all afternoon, and starting a new novel—another mystery, built around the racetrack, along the lines of Tip on a Dead Crab and The King of the Nightcap, two of Murray's realistically drawn, neatly crafted tales involving Shifty Lou Anderson, a character modeled after the writer himself, and Jay Fox, "the Prince of the Handicappers," loosely based on Okuneff.
"I couldn't sleep last night," he said as the fillies circled the ring. "I woke up at 4:30, got the paper, made a cup of hot tea and read for a while."
A minute later, he was off to the windows to make a bet. This was the moment he had been waiting for, the one among so many long quarters of an hour. It could not have been sweeter. Winsome Winner grabbed the lead, but Ultra Sass rushed up alongside her, and the two raced as a team down the backside. "Come on, baby!" Murray hollered.
Winsome Winner folded off the last bend, and through the stretch, to mounting roars, Ultra Sass came home by herself, finishing two on top. The Murrays and their partners and friends fairly danced into the winner's circle and bellied up to the track cashiers. "The biggest bet I made in 10 years," said Murray. "I really stepped out on her, $400 right on her beautiful nose. Is this a high, or what? I'm the King of the Nightcap!"
If life thus briefly imitated Murray's art, leaving him a momentary king at old Del Mar, so it continued to vex and puzzle Okuneff as he pored over the sixth race on Sept. 5—a six-furlong dash for maiden 2-year-olds, the first race in the late Daily Triple. He had just gotten crushed in the fifth, when none of his four choices had finished better than sixth.
"Aaaagghhh!" Okuneff growled, sitting down. Studying the sixth, he groused, "The whole field is lousy." By default, and because jockey Laffit Pincay was in the irons, Okuneff finally settled on the number 10 horse, Nikki's Baby, a 12-1 shot who had finished eighth in her last two starts. Overhearing him, two of Okuneff's pals wheeled in their seats and blurted simultaneously, "Nikki's Baby?"
"Yeah," said Okuneff. "Nikki's Baby." He picked the odds-on favorite in the seventh, a colt named Kanatiyr, the number 3 horse. "A real goofy horse," said Okuneff. "The last time he ran, he was unruly in the post parade. He's rank, hard to ride. But he has Chris McCarron on him, and he absolutely looks like the winner." And Okuneff loved Asia, the number 5 horse, in the eighth. So off he went to bet, among a few other combinations, the 10-3-5 late triple. In fact, he took it three times, with a $10 win ticket on Nikki's Baby.
The sixth race came to him like manna from the gods. Pincay had Nikki's Baby rolling in third down the backstretch, just off the leaders, when he began doing the huck-a-buck on her around the turn. The filly picked it up and was second, with dead aim on Apurate, at the top of the lane. She swept by the leader past the eighth pole. "Come on, Pinky!" Okuneff cried. "Now hold her together. Attaboy!" Indeed, she drove on to triumph by 1½ lengths, paid $27 to win and yielded Okuneff $135 for his $10 win ticket. When Kanatiyr came romping home to win the seventh by two, Okuneff was nearly home. Suddenly, all that existed between him and a nearly $1,500 score was the eighth. More than the money, no princely sum, what he needed was a shift in the momentum, a psychological push, a reason to maintain his hardscrabble existence as a horseplayer.
"I cannot justify the work if I look down at the ledger and it is less than zero," Okuneff said. "I run handicapping seminars. But if I don't make money at the races, I can't live like I do. The money would dry up."
Okuneff was awaiting the eighth, the El Cajon, when word reached him that Steve Nagler, a peripatetic, free-spirited Del Mar regular, had put the whammy on Asia. Looking over his charts and graphs, Nagler had said, "Asia has no chance. He'll bounce as high as the moon."
Bounce is bad. In betting parlance, that means that since Asia had run so brilliantly in his last start, chasing after Cee's Tizzy 17 days earlier, he was expected to suffer the consequences of that exertion in the El Cajon. "I'm betting that he won't," Okuneff said.
The man knew something about bouncing. He had been involved in sports in some capacity most of his life, his resume reading: scholarship football player four years at UCLA, including 1954, the year the Bruins were the undefeated national champions; football coaching jobs at UCLA and Washington State; player personnel director for the Southern California Sun in the now defunct World Football League; compulsive, out-of-control gambler, early '50s on, all sports.
"I'd bet on anything—football, baseball, basketball, boxing, trotters, thoroughbreds, gin rummy," Okuneff said. When he was out of steady work, he financed his compulsion through bit acting and stunt work. He figured that he had been in more than 60 movies, from Spartacus to Nuts!, and in even more TV shows: Murder, She Wrote; Matlock; Hunter; Remington Steele; Juke and the Fatman. He was also on a wheel of sorts. "I'd go broke gambling, go back to work and then gamble until I was broke again," he said. "One day, in the early 1980s, I had a crossroads discussion with myself. I said. 'Let's see if it's possible to show a profit at the races.' I gave up all other forms of gambling. I worked hard, and I learned to control the game emotionally. The thing you have to remember about the racetrack is, Never chase. A person can behave reasonably sanely when he's winning, somewhat sanely when he's breaking even. But how you behave when you're losing determines whether you have a shot winning at the track."
Okuneff had been at it now for nearly 10 years. Between the acting, the gambling and the seminars, he had managed well enough to buy a place a year ago in Del Mar, a modest inland abode. "Someday, if things keep going right," he said as he awaited the eighth, "I'll get something on the ocean, something with a view."
All he wanted now was the late triple. Jockey Alex Solis sent Asia to the lead like a dart in the El Cajon, and Okuneff was on his feet, urging the rider to save the horse: "Now give me a quarter in 22[4/5] and I'm happy." The teletimer flashed :22[4/5]. "All right! Run your race, Alex. One time! Open it up."
Down the backstretch Shinko Wine was running with Asia, a half length away. Okuneff's voice was rising: "Push on with him, kick in!" Around the bend Shinko Wine clung to Asia like a barnacle, with the favored Warcraft just a length back. Turning for home, Asia started to edge away, but now Warcraft was coming. "Come on, Alex!" Okuneff shouted.
Down the lane, Warcraft was charging on the outside, three quarters of a length away, but Asia beat him back through the last 100 yards, finally winning it by a half length. Okuneff rose on his toes, arms in the air, bellowing in triumph: "I knew it! He sure bounced, didn't he? He bounced right into the winner's circle!" The triple paid $476.10, earning Okuneff a payoff of $1,410.30, minus his $18 investment. "This is why I love this game," he sang, "isn't that delightful? Isn't this heaven?"
Bob Strauss understands as well as anyone the sentiment behind the question. Since first discovering Del Mar in the late 1950s, he has had his share of triumphs at the betting windows, but none to match that glorious late afternoon in the early '70s when he invested $30 to bet three long shots in a $5 exacta box. He turned to Helen and said, "These things come in, we'll win the joint."
In fact, two of them came in, and a jubilant Strauss found himself holding a ticket worth $5,000. "I was the happiest man in the world," he recalls. He repaired to the bar to celebrate. Standing there grinning, with lovely women on both arms and a pile of money on the bar in front of him, was actor David Janssen. He saw Strauss coming and called out: "Strauss! Come on over here. I'm buyin' drinks for everybody. I had the $5,000 exacta."
Strauss was as suave as an ambassador-to-be. Handing his own ticket to Janssen, he said quietly, "Didn't everybody?"
Speaking very slowly, Janssen said: "You son...of...a...bitch. You spoilsport sonofabitch!" Then he turned to the bartender and said, "Oh, get Strauss a drink anyway...."
Even Frisco had his moment in the sun as a bettor. Crosby loved him, and he simply couldn't resist when Frisco would beseech him for betting money. One afternoon, Crosby handed Frisco yet another $200, but this time Frisco managed a huge score on one of his improbable parlays. When Crosby heard about it, he immediately searched Frisco out in the Turf Club bar to get his $200 back. There was Frisco, sitting on a sofa surrounded by chorus girls. Crosby never had a chance.
Seeing him coming, Frisco nonchalantly held out a couple of $100 bills, flicked his cigar, and said, "Here, my good man, sing us a few b-b-bars of Melancholy Baby." Local clockers still say that Crosby laughed longer that day than it took Dempsey to get back to his seat.
In all 43 days of racing at Del Mar, though, there was no winner's circle scene that played so long on the chimes of memory as the one that followed the 43rd running of the $200,000 Del Mar Futurity, a one-mile race for 2-year-olds, on Sept. 12, closing day. Few men in America have sunk more money into the game of racing than John Mabee, a San Diego supermarket and insurance tycoon who has been the guiding hand behind Del Mar's growth over the last decade. Until last year—when he retired as president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which operates the track—Mabee oversaw the track's $80 million program to rebuild, beginning this year, the aging clubhouse and grandstand and the paddock out back. Mabee entered the business as an owner in 1957, and today he presides over a thoroughbred colossus that includes a 560-acre California farm and 540 horses—110 in training, 170 broodmares, 125 foals, 95 yearlings, 40 lay-ups. He sends his mares to his own stallions and to some of the fanciest pedigrees in Kentucky: Mr. Prospector, Nijinsky II, Seattle Slew.
Until last summer, Mabee had never been a leading owner at Del Mar, his hometown track, and had never won a major stakes there, much less a Futurity. "It's a race I've always wanted to win," he said. He certainly had the big gun last year in Best Pal, a game, consistent gelding that Mabee himself bred at home. Not only that, but two days before the running of the Futurity, Mabee had finally reached a place at Del Mar that he had been aiming at for years. By the end of the third race, in which his Bel's Starlet rushed to victory, Mabee's horses had won more money in a single season at Del Mar, $412,434, than those of any owner in the track's history. All Mabee lacked was a Del Mar Futurity victory to polish the trophy.
It was easier than he had ever imagined. Lying second off the early pace, with Pat Valenzuela sitting as he pleased, Best Pal galloped to the lead down the backside, opened two lengths around the turn and won easily by 3½ lengths. "Fantastic!" Mabee cried.
Just then, Valenzuela pulled the colt to a halt in front of the circle, spotted Mabee and blurted out: "You've got yourself a Kentucky Derby horse, Mr. Mabee!"
Mabee waved to him. "That's a long, long way off, Pat," he said.
Of course, Valenzuela was right. Best Pal did get to the Kentucky Derby this year, a very solid 6-1 shot, but he simply wasn't enough Derby horse. He made a desperate final run at Churchill Downs, only to come in second, 1¾ lengths short of Strike the Gold. Ah, but the dreaming began at Del Mar, and that is what the game's about.
That and the conjuring of old, pleasant ghosts. Del Mar has had its share of those, to be sure, certainly more than most old haunts in this game. Frisco sitting in a laundry truck. Crosby singing a couple of bars of Melancholy Baby. And Jimmy waving to Margie from the hill.
When the trumpeter blows the "Call to the Post," Del Mar's denizens are all on hand, decked out in baubles, bonnets and pastel sun hats. Former child star Cooper (with horse) is a track regular in Del Mar's Hollywood tradition, and veteran horseplayer Weitzenhoffer is partial to scarves as bright as jockeys' silks.
Crosby, who held Del Mar's reins in its early years, was there on opening day in 1937 to welcome the track's first patron, Mrs. W.R. Richardson of Long Beach.
If losing money was ever funny, it was at Del Mar, where comics who lost included Fields, Lucy and Desi (with unidentified jockey) and Frisco (with John Longden and a capless Shoe).
When he's not writing or singing in an opera, Murray likes to check up on his prima donna, Ultra Sass, under the close scrutiny of a Del Mar stable cat.
Okuneff, who traded in a life of compulsive gambling for a career as a handicapper, has done well enough to afford downtime in the California sun.
Years ago, riders exercised horses in Del Mar's surf. Today, trainers see the sea as a water hazard.