Opening Day Del Mar summer races

After a year of virtual race audiences due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club welcomed back about 15,000 people in person to its 82nd annual Opening Day races Friday, July 16.

Tickets to Friday’s Opening Day races and festivities at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club sold out weeks in advance. Due to COVID-19 measures, the club can only sell as many tickets as there are seats said Craig Dado, executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

Mac McBride, director of media, said this year will be financially successful compared to last year. He said in 2019, $12 million bets were cast in a typical day.

“The primary yardstick is how much betting takes place,” he said. “Ninety percent of betting takes place off track.”

Del Mar returns with fans and smiles

Horse races started at 2 p.m., but two hours before the races, the annual Hat Contest began in the Plaza de Mexico.

The contest is known to draw dozens of people sporting flamboyant, extravagant designs. Plaza de Mexico was filled with women wearing colorful, broad-brimmed hats with a range of designs — from purple feathers to bluebirds in a cage to Vegas showgirls-themed hats.

Not wearing a hat was Mike Tyson, who attended the races in a VIP box along with security and an entourage.

Ugochi Iwuava, a Nigerian designer who attended the races, said she designed seven of the dresses other women were wearing to the event.

Sheba McMahon, who wore one of Iwuava’s designs, described her dress as a winter wonderland with a “wedding vibe.” She wore a v-cut, layered white dress with a cotillion style and a white hat with multicolored feathers and frills for the contest.

“San Diego is more of a T-shirt-and-jean town; today is a day where San Diegans get permission to dress over the top and put a hat on and be glamorous,” said Deena VonYokes, another wearer of Iwuava’s designs.

Women were not the only ones walking around in extravagance; Steven Blumhoefer wore a suit with pink flamingos and white and mint palm trees on it. He said he was inspired by his wife to wear something fancy and unique.

Belinda Berry was one of the four winners. She said she was overjoyed to finally wear her Showgirls-inspired hat that had been sitting on her coffee table for 18 months.

“Every time I looked at it, it gave me hope that better days were ahead,” Berry said about her sky blue and white feathered chapeau with pearls lining its brim.

Sandra Comer designed her own hat with military veterans in mind. She said she wanted to celebrate all of her friends and family who have served in the U.S. military, so her hat was festooned with photos of military vets, flags, and fake flowers and plants.

Nani Richardson designed her own purple and white feathered hat, filled with glimmer and sparkles. She said she lives for this annual event and has been coming for the last seven years.

The hat contest offered more than $4,000 in prizes for four categories: best racing theme, most glamorous, best fascinator and best flowers.

The grand prize went to Rebecca Smith of Encinitas, who also won for Best Flowers. Lori Shelton of San Diego won for Best Racing Theme, Berry of Walnut Creek won for Most Glamorous and Kathy LaBorde of San Diego won for Best Fascinator.