Magazine article Sunset

A Winner by the Sea

Magazine article Sunset

A Winner by the Sea

Article excerpt

On the Southern California coast, Del Mar is a haven for beachcombers, gardeners-and fans of fast, fast horses

I used to ride my saddle horse for miles along the beach to Torrey Pines State Reserve," Fae Sanger says as she gazes across the Del Mar Racetrack toward the ocean. "Some of the trainers used to take thoroughbreds out to walk in the surf."

While waiting for the next race, Sanger and her Del Martian friend Don Terwilliger fondly recall the track's-as well as this Southern California beach town's-storied past. Terwilliger and Sanger were present as youngsters when Seabiscuit beat Ligaroti in the 1938 match race that cemented the reputation of both the racetrack and the town. Terwilliger grew up in Del Mar and was smitten with horse-racing fever as a young boy when he and 20,000 other fans jammed the track to watch the 'Biscuit win by a nose, breaking the track record by four seconds.

Sixty-six years later, you don't often see horses on the beach, and Sanger has grown suddenly sanguine about her chances in the next race. She advises her guests to bet on an upand-comer named Decisional but cautions, "I've owned horses and I've been around 'em all my life, but I'm still a $2 bettor. Nobody knows for sure what a horse is going to do. The old saying holds true: 'There are a thousand ways to lose a race and only one way to win.'"

The town of Del Mar may be the perfect foil for the track's vicissitudes. It sits on a sandstone mesa between two coastal lagoons, only 20 miles north of downtown San Diego but in mood a world apart. Laid out before the bulldozer became the favored steed of Southern California home builders, Del Mar's narrow lanes and winding roads with names like Crest, Serpentine, and Zapo have kept their early-20th-century feel. The weather also plays an unchanging role: Very little rain falls, and the days are usually warm and sunny, except for May and june, when moist, overcast air over a cool ocean battles it out with inland heat to see which retreats first. It's the kind of temperate climate that people, as well as the area's famed Torrey pine trees, find perfectly attractive.

Many people find it attractive even at 6 a.m. On a typical morning at Stratford Court Cafe, my wife and I-halfway through our daily walk-stumble bleary-eyed into a warm den of conversation, rustling newspapers, and laptops wirelessly viewing the day's surf report. Already we've seen several people we know.

Jim, the baker, tapped his horn as he drove by, his truck stuffed full of sourdough bread from his O'Brien's Boulangerie. Marcia, the hospital CEO in her favorite holey sweatshirt, took off her headphones to chat for a minute before tackling the winding streets and lanes that lead back to her home near the top of the hill. The elderly "maintenance guy," who's often out watering the flower beds at a complex of shops and offices on the main drag, Camino Del Mar, crimped his hose so we could pass unscathed. We know he's really the owner and the property's worth millions, but he's old-school, like a lot of the people in town who dress casually, nurse a beater convertible to the beach, take care of their own yards, and keep a sharp eye out for anyone who doesn't play by the rules when it comes to building new houses that are too tall, too big, too Vegas.

Del Mar isn't old money-it's populated by scientists, professors from nearby University of California, San Diego, teachers (lots of teachers), airline industry workers (lots of pilots and flight attendants), gardeners, painters, retirees, accountants. You get the feeling that most people live here because they like the bleacher seats rather than the boxes-even if these houses on tiny lots have been rocked by the last 20 years' tsunami of beach-town inflation.

Del Mar never grew to an unmanageable size or broad-avenued ostentatiousness, because it couldn't. The mesa is only about 2 miles long, north to south, and less than lk mile wide-to an invisible line where Crest Canyon acts as a boundary on the east. …

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