On Opening Day, Del Mar Yacht Club celebrates 25th anniversary

When the party-loving masses return to the Del Mar Racetrack on Opening Day, one tradition will revive among the countless others: Bermuda shorts and flip flops a-plenty scattered throughout the sea of seersucker suits and Italian loafers.

Because for the Del Mar Yacht Club, the arrival of the racing season is as much Jimmy Buffett as it is Bing Crosby.

“We are Hawaiian shirts and thongs, we are tuxedos, we love it all,” says Greg McDonald, the club’s treasurer.

For 25 years, the loosely knit social club has held dearly to its claim on the Seabiscuit skybox, the only one that has escaped corporate clutches. And with yet another sell-out, the club will raise a ruckus 150 people strong — friends, friends of friends, and the occasional celebrity — a far cry from the higher-brow crowds in the corporate skyboxes.

Over that quarter century, the club has weathered the tempests of change. They’ve moved anchor (so to speak) from their initial gathering spots; nowadays their favorite haunts are En Fuego Cantina and Bully’s North, where the club’s insignia hangs proudly on the wall. They’ve long since parted ways with the three boats their founding members hailed in their heyday. And the original 10 “Commodores” have winnowed down through death and departure to four devoted stalwarts manning the club’s figurative helm —Charles Coune, his wife Nadine, McDonald and Nora Nido — self-described knuckleheads keeping the club’s spirit alive.

“Some people thought we were done, but it’s been revived,” McDonald said after the last of their 150 tickets sold out recently.

There won’t be many better seats anywhere at the hallowed track on July 19 than the Seabiscuit skybox, poised above the horses’ turn for home as jockeys make their final, fateful moves and the crowd holds its collective breath. The sheer amount of track knowledge is daunting to consider, but theirs is a soiree keened more on good times than wild wagers.

“Opening Day is always a tough card, trust me,” Charles Coune said. “We do not go big on the betting. A lot of the folks who don’t come to the track much but come on opening day, they see all those strange distances and make all sorts of exotic bets. We like to say they’ve got more money to spend than horse sense.”

Irony is part of what drew McDonald to the club 18 years ago, a subtle sort of thumbing their nose at San Diego’s elites.

“That’s what I love about it,” he said. “It was all about the satire.”

And when their party sparks up again to mark their 25th year, it’s only fitting that it coincides with a return to the traditional of opening on the third Wednesday of July.

“Our huge day is back,” McDonald said. “It’s the high holy days for San Diego. Everybody in the county, it’s the time to be someone.”