The haze-colored sky falls first on the ocean and all its simple beauty. Then over the low, rolling hills dotted with light-colored, red-roofed houses. Finally, the racetrack's color-drenched paddock, wall-crawling ivy everywhere.
Welcome to Del Mar, "Where the Turf Meets the Surf." There was a forgettable little tune by that name, except it was sung by Bing Crosby, and he sang everything well. Bing was the first president of Del Mar, when all the Hollywood stars used to catch a train down from Los Angeles, and the track still plays Bing's recording before the first and last races.
But now it's late in the morning and the paddock is full of inexperienced horses getting familiar with their surroundings. The horses are like beautiful kids in their first week at school. Their handlers are here for the "laying on of hands," putting human flesh to horseflesh until a passable trust is possible. The handlers are mostly men sporting baseball caps and mustaches.
The horses are beautiful as only the young can be, and each seems strong as a marlin. Their ears are up and forward, their tails twitching nervously, but they are largely quiet. Most current noise is murmured Spanish.
Some horses get saddled and cinched, then led from the paddock down a short tunnel running under the grandstand to the Ben-Hur openness of the track itself.
The track is Polysurface, the latest try by engineers to improve nature. Sand, wax, rubber, carpet fibers. There are four different Polysurface companies in California, and each has sold its version to four different racetracks. Supervisors poke around it all day, sticking thermometers in it and calculating. Maybe they have something to do with Contraflow.
When it's all over, it will be like all surfaces always. Some horses will like it better than some other horses, and your only job will be to guess which ones.
In a race simulcast from Arlington Park, Buddha's Bride sweeps home. A young giant, his server's whites rolled up to show a forearm tattoo dedicated to "Affliction," flings his ticket to the floor.
'If I'da boxed them, I'da had it," he mutters, not yet close to solving the Mystery of the Unsolved Mystery.
But even if it's not the right time, he's in the right place.
Stuff of legend and song, they are everywhere to be seen at Del Mar. Here am I in the paddock between races; the earnestness of the day has rubbed my face a perfervid red. And here comes a flock o' dames, panty lines everywhere, tanned legs protruding from wind-kissed dresses and bottomed off by Chloé boots or Dolce & Gabbana gladiator sandals. Some are shadowed in matching shoes and tighter dresses by California moms reeking of plastic surgery.
A girl comes to the paddock, her long, blond hair hung flat on her back, thin and unexciting. Black skirt, flip-flops, open-shouldered polka-dot blouse. Knees back, belly forward, she reads a program.
Naturally, a guy gets interested. In California, there are lots of men in shorts: mid-thigh, mid-leg, mid-calf. Here comes a guy with spiked hair and a knee brace. He talks to the blonde.
She holds out her program to him. "Is there a page in here that tells you which jockeys are going to do good here?" she asks without a dollop of irony.
If you're around a racetrack, you have opinions.
But unlike most places, here opinions are without risk.
I first noticed the two old guys arguing on the infield. The infield at Del Mar is California-sized and toned. Booths hawking kettle corn, Captain Morgan rum and garlic-battered artichokes. Tile-roofed buildings favored for rentals by Group Sales, umbrella-shielded picnic tables, a gym-setted playground for kids. Two lakes guarded by towering palm trees, a rock-star soundstage, lovely chunks of bougainvillea and gardenia dampened by the flocks of gulls and crows that give everything an ebony-and-ivory cast.
The two old guys are looking as basic and forlorn as a dog drinking from a puddle, only nobody is paying them much mind. One hides behind a face full of white whiskers, a red shopping bag in one hand, an oversized water bottle in the other. He slams the water bottle to the ground to pull his wallet out and shake it in the face of the other old man.
He has shuffled up, dragging his Aztec past behind him. He has his hands in his pockets, but just barely, fingertips only. He pulls them out and begins to tug at the wallet in his back pocket. He is cursing the other old man. Both of them are ignored by the other racegoers, as ignored as flight attendants illustrating the plane's safety features to a batch of new passengers.
If you got close enough, you could tell the argument is not about any horse's pedigree but a long-ago comic-strip pairing.
'I tell you, Jeff was the little guy!" sputters the one with whiskers, grabbing for some bills. "Mutt was the tall one!"
The two paddock champions who've been losing many of their verbs and adjectives at the bottom of their beer cups are gazing at the 4 horse like he was an oil painting. They are mendicants of the moment, begging to know the unknowable for a time, even a limited time. A week, a day, even the time between the fourth and fifth races.
The 4 horse is tall and colored that shade of brown most people describe as black. He wheels and props as his jockey tries to get a boot into a stirrup. The limits put on thoroughbreds are limited. A certain wildness, the kind that causes a surge in the blood, the kind of surge that pushes to exceed its kind, that wildness is to be kept and encouraged.
You can even see that in those chosen to ride. Only those humans calculated to least inhibit that surge are called. The lightest loads possible, each wrapped in the most rococo costume possible. Here are some typical program descriptions of some jockey silks in this race:
White and black halves, red flaming hoop, red and black halved sleeves, black cap.
Hot pink, blue circle "A" emblem and "B" on back, blue sleeves, pink and blue cap.
Burgundy, white circle "PY," yellow "Lucy's" on white bar on sleeves, burgundy cap.
Now they're on the track, the natural colors and beauty of the horses topped off by the garish jockey silks. The walk into the starting gate, the electrifying bell, the surge from it.
Here they come. Pianissimo, the drumbeat hoof-falls. Closer comes all the power and color. Then louder, on the same elevator as the crowd noise.