By Linda Thompson
"Opening day (July 21) is the epitome of the Del Mar racetrack," said Craig Dado, the venerable institution's senior vice president of marketing.
Last year, he said, the attendance record was broken with some 47,000 visitors coming through the turnstiles. Dado said he was surprised by the number in the sluggish economy, but stopped short of making any predictions about attendance for 2010; however, "I would not be surprised if attendance is higher."
Today's marketing plan is to attract the younger crowd by establishing Del Mar as "the place to see and be seen," much as it was in the 1940s and '50s, when Hollywood stars came to ol' pal Bing Crosby's horse racing track. History shows Crosby standing at the turnstile taking tickets on the inaugural July 3 opening day in 1937.
The Hollywood crowd's attendance was so important that the Santa Fe Railroad hosted a special racetrack train to transport the movie stars from Los Angeles to Del Mar.
Like most fan-based industries, the horse racing industry has also succumbed to falling attendance. About eight years ago, Del Mar realized it needed to reassess the stagnant state of affairs. The evaluation team started with the track's assets and location.
On the plus-side of the equation were the ocean view, great weather, activity-oriented residents and a rich Hollywood history. The downside was a stagnant industry supported mostly by men.
The result of the brainstorming session was to make the track "sexy" to young adults and women, and change from publicity based on the horses to publicity marketing Del Mar as "The Social Scene."
Del Mar's female fan base is now 40 percent female, furlongs ahead of the typical 20 percent to 25 percent seen at other tracks.
One of opening day's biggest traditions is women sporting large hats for "The One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest." The track works with two women who specialize in millinery, designer Diana Cavagnaro and Andrea Zeidell of The Village Hat Shop in Seaport Village.
The impressionable dressing continues into the season for many of the spectators, especially for those seated in suites and box seats.
Dado said horses and jockeys are not normally emphasized in the marketing campaign, but 2010 will prove to be the exception. Del Mar is going all out to advertise female Canadian jockey Chantal Sutherland's visit; she has previously been named one of People Magazine's "100 Most Beautiful People."
Dado said Del Mar has also transitioned into more of a family entertainment destination by focusing on young families. Sunday is dedicated to families. Camp Del Mar is also part of this focus.
The camp is a summer program for kids ages 5-12, similar to a YMCA camp.
The $24 camp includes activities, lunch, snacks and a T-shirt, but parents must remain at the track while their children participate. It ends 30 minutes after the last race.
Dado said that Camp Del Mar also offers employees an opportunity to bring their kids to work. The camp provides pony rides on Sundays.