By Danielle Warren
It's Opening Day at the Del Mar racetrack. Nerves are a jumble as the competitors emerge. A great amount of time and money has been invested into this moment. Who will win? Best hat, that is.
Before the horses ever appear at Opening Day, a different kind of competition is taking place. "The One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest," now in its 15th year, is a good-natured, albeit competitive, fashion contest rooted in Del Mar racing traditions.
"People don't just go to Del Mar for the betting," hat contest organizer Julie Sarno said. "There is a beauty and pageantry and tradition to it that people enjoy. And Del Mar is such a beautiful racetrack, being so close to the ocean - it is really a resort experience."
Pageantry and hats have been a part of the Del Mar racing season since the gates first opened in 1937. Bing Crosby, a founding partner of the racetrack, arrived in a straw Panama hat that day, and the very first guest he welcomed inside was a woman wearing a beautiful white hat.
"Opening Day is so special, and so is wearing a hat," Sarno said. "They just go together."
Sarno created the first hat contest in Del Mar in 1995 after discovering no such contest existed anywhere else in the country. The idea has since spread to many other races, including the Kentucky Derby, and inspires distinctive, elaborate and beautiful wearable works of art throughout Del Mar's racing season.
This year's contestants will be judged in four categories: best racing theme, funniest and most outrageous, most glamorous, best flowers and all others. Hat wearers display their hard work during the Hat Parade, and category winners are then invited into the paddock for an awards ceremony. The grand-prize winner will walk away with a 42-inch Toshiba LCD TV this year.
Diana Cavagnero, a local hat designer and owner of the hat boutique Designer Millinery, has seen the hat contest transform Opening Day into much more than a chance to bet big.
"Del Mar's Opening Day has become the biggest fashion show of the year - 40,000 people all dressed to the nines and having a big party," she said.
This season, Cavagnero says to expect yellow-, coral- and plum-colored hats in addition to the always-popular black and white. Sheer fabrics and lace will also be big. And while oversized, floppy hats are synonymous with racing season, Cavagnero said small cocktail hats have been in high demand lately, especially for the racing season.
No matter what style, color or fabric you choose, Cavagnero's foremost advice is to have fun with the hat: "Wearing a hat changes a person's personality," she said. "You will never have a gloomy or blue day if you have a hat on. It makes you always want to smile."
At least that's one safe bet for racing season.
'The One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest'
- When: July 22
- Where: Plaza de Mexico, Del Mar racetrack
- Time: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
- Grand prize: Toshiba 42-inch LCD TV
- First place in each category: $300 plus $100 Westfield Gift Card
- Second place in each category: $200
- Third place in each category: $100