Del Mar Racetrack CEO Joe Harper looks back on 80 memorable years.
In the early 1930s, racetracks were legalized and started to appear in California. Bing Crosby had a home in Rancho Santa Fe and was approached with the idea of fronting a racetrack on the Del Mar Fairgrounds. A deal was struck between the state and Bing, so he headed up the first Del Mar Turf Club with a bunch of his Hollywood pals on the board. Del Mar and San Diego were sleepy towns back in 1937, so Bing knew he needed people from Los Angeles to make the business venture go. Bing was a very popular guy in those years, with a lot of pull in the industry, and Bob Hope told me a number of years ago: “The fact was, when Bing asked us, we all came down.”
Harper, the current CEO
Jimmy Durante, Randolph Scott, W.C. Fields, Ava Gardner, Gloria Swanson, Mickey Rooney, Buster Keaton, Bob Hope and more all came through the gates. In the 1930s, there was no television, so if you wanted to see a star, you went to the movies. Or you could go to Del Mar, where you had Red Skelton taking off his top and saying “he lost his shirt” at the betting window; Laurel and Hardy wandering around; or Bing hosting his famous nighttime parties held in the track’s Turf Club. The racetrack was a product of Hollywood for many years. People took the train from L.A. to see the celebrities, so the opening year was a huge hit.
A young Joe Harper with his grandfather, director Cecil B. DeMille
The following year, Bing called his friend Charlie Howard, who happened to own a horse named Seabiscuit, and set up a match race against Bing’s own horse, Ligaroti. A live radio broadcast from the track and a $25,000 winner-take-all contest got everyone in the country talking about the new Del Mar track. More smart marketing moves on Bing’s part.
Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien worked together to launch Del Mar in 1937.
So, how did I end up at the Del Mar Racetrack? My mother’s dad was director Cecil B. DeMille and we all lived in a compound in Hollywood. As early as I can remember, I was on a set or playing on the back lot of Paramount Pictures. When I was about 7 years old, my grandfather suggested that I act in The Greatest Show on Earth, so I got a job as a circus performer. It won an Oscar for best picture in 1952, and I am probably the only actor left alive from that movie.
Raquel Welch (right) grooms one of the gorgeous horses at the Del Mar barns in the late 1950s.
I was always hanging around the racetrack, as my mother bred horses, and I met a producer there who had a couple of television shows that were part of the racing scene. He needed another cinematographer and he knew I’d been around the business, so he taught me the basics. This job put me at the track almost every day, and eventually I was hired to oversee racing at Santa Anita, so I hung up my camera and worked there for two years. When the president of Del Mar was retiring, some people recommended me for an executive position, and I have been here on a permanent basis since 1977.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz pose with the winning jockey.
I suppose my proudest accomplishment over the past 41 years is putting Del Mar on the map. When Bing left, it was still a fun place to be, but when I arrived, we were number 22—a track that no one took too seriously. What I’ve tried to do with Del Mar is make it part of the entertainment business. We started off with a program of concerts, bolstering Opening Day hype with hat contests and parties; then we brought in the $1 million Pacific Classic race, and eventually our sponsorship grew. You don’t just come to bet on horses—you can go to a beer festival, reggae concert or wine tasting in the infield. We went from “Where the Turf Meets the Surf” to “Del Mar Is as Cool as Ever.” It’s been very good for the state with literally hundreds of millions of dollars in profit over the years, and every cent of it has stayed in Del Mar.
Another huge accomplishment for us was hosting the Breeders’ Cup in 2017. It’s horse racing’s version of the Super Bowl. We pulled out all of the stops. We had 24 different events going on before and during it. Seventy percent of the people had never been to Del Mar and were blown away by the town and all of the high-end hotels and restaurants. We had virtually no operational issues and our handle on track was the highest in Breeders’ Cup history. It was a $100 million positive hit for San Diego. We sure look forward to having them back in 2021.
July 3, 1937
Del Mar opens with Bing Crosby welcoming patrons at the front gate
Aug. 12, 1938
Seabiscuit wins the historic $25,000 winner-take-all match race that puts Del Mar on the map
Aug. 10, 1991
Golden Eagle Farm’s Best Pal wins the inaugural running of the $1 million Pacific Classic
July 18, 2007
The track’s 68th season introduces a new $9 million Polytrack racing surface
July 18, 2012
Del Mar’s 75th anniversary season commences with the largest ever on-track attendance: 47,339
July 17, 2014
The track debuts a brand-new, wider turf course to accommodate more horses and make Del Mar eligible to host the Breeders’ Cup
Nov. 7, 2014
A new fall racing tradition starts with an inaugural Bing Crosby Season meet
NoV. 3-4, 2017
Del Mar hosts the Breeders’ Cup
July 17-Sept. 2, 2019
Del Mar’s 80th summer racing season
Photography by: the del mar thoroughbred club