A Day at the Del Mar Races: Where the Surf Meets the Turf


Elizabeth Taylor loved animals. Visiting her godfather’s estate in the English countryside, she was in heaven, surrounded by dogs, cats, lambs, guinea pigs, tortoises, and chickens.  God forbid, anyone should kill one of those chickens for dinner!  For her fifth birthday, she was surprised with a pony named Betty.

Young and beautiful.

“The first time I got on her back, she threw me into a patch of stinging nettles,” Taylor once recalled, but that didn’t keep her from getting on and riding again.

At twelve years old, Taylor knew she was perfect for the role of Velvet Brown in MGM’s National Velvet, released in 1944.  The title character is a young girl who trains her beloved horse to win the Grand National.  Some of the crew questioned Taylor’s equestrian abilities and one of her trainers felt she lacked confidence when riding, but the audience fell in love with her.

Jumping ahead to 1985, years after she had wed and divorced Richard Burton twice and her marriage, her sixth, to Senator John Warner had ended, Taylor continued to be enamored with horses.  On the arm of her friend and fellow actor George Hamilton, she sometimes attended the races.  Getting further involved, she bought a three-year old colt named Basic Image.

The actress dressed her jockeys in a deep pink with chartreuse diamonds racing silks, the colors she had worn in National Velvet.  On July 26 at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club that jockey was Willie Shoemaker.

Shoemaker wasn’t any ordinary jockey.  Up to that point in his 37-year career, he had won more races (8,482), more stakes races (928), and more purses (almost $102 million) than anyone else.  Only two weeks earlier he had finished second at Hollywood Park on Taylor’s horse.  This time, however, he fell leaving the gate, when Basic Image clipped the heels of another thoroughbred.

The Shoe, suffering a fractured vertebra in his lower back, was out for the rest of the season at Del Mar.  But always a gentleman, he called Taylor to assure her that it wasn’t the horse’s fault.

Philosophically, he noted, “I guess if something like this is going to happen, the best place for it to happen is at Del Mar.”  He continued, “I can’t play golf, but at least I’ve got the beach.”

© 2012 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved