Studio portrait of American singer and actor Bing Crosby sitting and smoking a pipe, circa 1938. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
When you think of areas which became playgrounds for film industry folks during Hollywood’s Golden Era, places like Malibu and Palm Springs come to mind. However, there are nuggets of Hollywood history throughout Southern California, since celebrities were always looking for a unique hideaway to escape the spotlight while enjoying some relaxation with their friends and family.
For instance, in the 1930s, Bing Crosby, a crooner turned actor, established a coastal town in North San Diego County as a getaway for himself and a destination for other Hollywood folks. The famous popular singer of the 1930s to 1960s spearheaded the development of the area as a paradise for his two favorite outdoor hobbies, golf and horse racing. Today, you can still see how the North County communities of Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe were shaped by Crosby’s influence.
Del Mar Racetrack
It’s no surprise that Irishman Bing Crosby would take a fancy to horse racing, which is deeply ingrained in Irish culture. Like many movie stars, he crossed the Mexican border to Agua Caliente Racetrack for gambling and drinks during Prohibition, when both were illegal in America. In 1934, he became a shareholder in the Santa Anita Racetrack. In 1935, he bought his first racehorse. In 1936, William A. Quigley, a stockbroker, approached Crosby about the idea of starting a racetrack at the new Del Mar Fairgrounds, which opened that year. Bing loved the idea, and the Del Mar Turf Club was founded on May 6, 1936. Hollywood personalities formed the original membership, including Bing as president, his brother and bandleader Bob Crosby as vice-president, fellow Irish actor Pat O’Brien and comedian Oliver Hardy as officers, and Joe E. Brown and Gary Cooper on the executive committee.
Horses race with the grandstands in the background at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, Calif., on July 20, 2005. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
The Turf Club leased the fairgrounds to build the racetrack, and Bing had to borrow $100,000 against his life insurance policy to finish the construction. As a result, Crosby and his colleagues felt the need to put all the power of their celebrity behind their expensive business venture. For instance, on July 3, 1937, Bing Crosby himself took tickets on the racetrack’s opening day, which drew 15,000 people. He also persuaded NBC to broadcast a radio show from Del Mar on Saturday mornings. The celebrities in the Del Mar Turf Club attracted their Hollywood friends to the races. A newsreel from opening day shows celebrities like Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck in attendance, in addition to founders Crosby and O’Brien. Crosby’s horse, High Strike, won the first race.
To this day, a mellow male voice croons the tune “Where the Turf Meets the Surf” at the beginning of the first and last races each season at Del Mar Racetrack. That voice is Bing Crosby, and the recording has been played before races since 1945. In honor of races restarting after World War II, Bing co-wrote this song about the racetrack with James V. Monaco and Johnny Burke. He recorded it specifically for that purpose, never releasing it on an album. Crosby gave Del Mar its nickname “where the turf meets the surf,” which has stuck ever since. The lyrics are both a testimony to the track’s popularity up to that point and a plug for its future success:
“Where the turf meets the surf
Down at old Del Mar.
Take a plane;
Take a train;
Take a car.
“There is a smile on every face
And a winner in each race.
Where the turf meets the surf
At Del Mar.”
Seabiscuit vs. Ligaroti
On August 12, 1938, Del Mar got its biggest boost to date with a $25,000 match race between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti. The famous Seabiscuit was owned by Charles S. Howard, a friend of Bing and a founding member of the Turf Club. Ligaroti was an Argentinian horse owned by Binglin Stables in Moorpark, started by Bing and one of his best friends, Lindsay Howard, who was Charles Howard’s son. The race was attended by 20,000 and was the first horserace to be nationally broadcasted. There are conflicting accounts of infighting by the jockeys, but Seabiscuit ended up winning by a nose.
Seabiscuit wins the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940. (Public Domain)
Before this pivotal race, Ligaroti gained notoriety as a movie star. In 1938, Bing Crosby made a movie about horse racing called “Sing, You Sinners.” This story about the three Beebe brothers also starred Fred MacMurray and twelve-year-old Donald O’Connor, with Elizabeth Patterson as their mother. In what was acclaimed as his most dramatic performance to date, Crosby plays a brother who prefers to swap and gamble his way through life instead of doing honest work. After getting lucky at the racetrack one day, he has enough money to buy a swap shop, but he ends up swapping the store for a racehorse, Uncle Gus. The character of Uncle Gus was played by Ligaroti, and the movie features footage from a real race in which he ran in Santa Anita. The movie was debuted at Del Mar.
The Del Mar Racetrack was just one of Bing’s contributions to San Diego County. Besides being a passionate racehorse owner, Crosby was also an avid golfer. The same year the racetrack opened, he hosted his first golf tournament at his club in Rancho Santa Fe, a “clambake,” which would later become the National Pro-Am in Pebble Beach. Today, Bing’s influence on North County can be seen in the rolling golf courses, classy country clubs, and well-kept horse property. The Crosby Estates at Rancho Santa Fe, for instance, is a charming gated golf community named in honor of the Academy Award-winning actor, who owned an original adobe house on the site.
Take a trip down to old Del Mar or explore the beautiful rolling hills of Rancho Santa Fe to see how the area is still steeped in Hollywood history. Hotels, country clubs, restaurants, the train station, and—of course—the racetrack feature references to Bing Crosby with names, photographs, and other memorabilia. If you can’t take a plane, train, or car to get there, you can always watch “Sing You Sinners” instead!
"Sing You Sinners" lobby card from 1938. (MovieStillsDB)