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Hollywood in Horse Racing: Bing Crosby

Bing Crosby at Belmont Park in 1933. Photo from the Keeneland Library Morgan Collection. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Bing Crosby is a name recognizable to anyone with an interest in movies or music, especially that of years past. His life was one centered around entertainment. He led the charts of radio ratings, record sales, and motion picture grosses for over two decades. In addition to his success in Hollywood, Crosby was very passionate about sports. Knowing that, it is no surprise that this man had a love for one of the most entertaining sports of his time - Thoroughbred Horse Racing.

Gambling was outlawed in the early 1900s and Prohibition began in 1920, effectively killing the sport of horse racing in America. However, just past the Mexican border was Agua Caliente Racetrack. Celebrities, wealthy residents of California, and prominent horsemen frequently made the short trek across the border to indulge in alcohol and gambling on horses. Bing Crosby and friends like Rita Hayworth, Buster Keaton, and Mary Astor were among those who often visited the track.

Crosby’s time at Agua Caliente foreshadowed what he would later do for California horse racing. His love for the races prompted him to become a shareholder in the brand-new Santa Anita in 1934 and, later, a founder of a new California racetrack.

The success of Santa Anita Racetrack inspired stockbroker and former college football coach William A. Quigley to want to open a racetrack at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. He approached Bing Crosby and pitched this idea - Crosby was sold. The two quickly recruited their friends to form the Del Mar Turf Club on May 6, 1936.

The Club was full of glittering stars. Bing was the President, his brother Bob Crosby was the Vice-President, Pat O'Brien and Oliver Hardy were officers, and Joe E. Brown, Gary Cooper, Charles S. Howard, and a plethora of Hollywood insiders made up the executive committee. Quigley acted as the general manager of Del Mar Race Track. The Club obtained a ten-year lease and construction began. To finish the building, Crosby had to borrow $100,000 against his life insurance policy. They were granted a racing license the following year. Charles Howard’s son Lindsay C. Howard quickly became friends with Bing Crosby. The two grew so close that they decided to form a stable together and thus, Binglin Stable was established in Moorpark, California. They also started a stock farm near Buenos Aires, Argentina to buy and race locally bred racehorses.

Del Mar opened its doors for the first time in 1937, attracting 15,000 people. Bing had no problem using his celebrity power to promote Del Mar. He was at the gate to greet fans and take tickets on opening day and convinced NBC to broadcast a radio show from Del Mar on Saturday mornings where attendees, celebrity and the average person alike, were asked questions like “How high is a hand?”.

Crosby’s horse High Strike won the first race with Albert Jonson aboard. When Johnson retired from his career as a jockey, he became the trainer for Binglin Stables.

By starting Del Mar Racetrack, Crosby helped transform the small town of Del Mar into a playground of sorts for Hollywood celebrities. Just one year after its opening, the racetrack was booming. Del Mar was especially helped by a $25,000 match race between Charles S. Howard’s Seabiscuit and Binglin Stable’s Ligaroti (a horse they had shipped in from Argentina). The race, held on August 12, 1938, drew 20,000 people to the racetrack and was the first nationally broadcasted horse race.

The race was a battle. According to some accounts, Ligaroti’s jockey Noel Richardson grabbed Seabiscuit’s saddle cloth and Seabiscuit’s jockey George Woolf’s wrist. Others say that Woolf grabbed ahold of Richardson’s reins. Regardless, Seabiscuit beat Ligaroti by a nose. August 5, 1938 was named Motion Picture Day by Del Mar Racetrack. The Motion Picture Handicap offered a purse of $3,000 for three-year olds owned by people who worked in the entertainment industry. Crosby made a song, “Where The Turf Meets The Surf”, for his track and the track’s catchphrase was born as a result.

In November of 1938, The Maitland Daily Mercury published the following quote in their paper, “Hollywood Celebrities — actors — executives, directors and writers — go to the races, wagering handsome sums on the horse which they think will win. Bing Crosby is the smartest one in the film colony, for he is the principal owner of the Del Mar Race Track, and receives a large income from the money spent by life is film colleagues”.

Bing Crosby enjoyed a lot of success in the world of Thoroughbred Horse Racing. His racetrack had become a center for Hollywood - a place for he and his friends to drink, gamble, and watch the races and for Hollywood Agents to show off their newest starlets. Celebrities presented trophies in the winners’ circle and lived lavishly in the nearby hotels, restaurants, and on the beach.

Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times Collection - Bing Crosby with clockers and trainers at Del Mar, undated. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Though not as successful as his Del Mar venture, Binglin Stable enjoyed some success as well. They were responsible for bringing the great Kayak II to the United States, selling him to Charles S. Howard. They also brought over Don Bingo, who would win the 1943 Suburban Handicap. In 1942, Del Mar closed until 1944 to be training grounds for the United States Marine Corps and then to be a manufacturing site for B-17 Bomber parts. Bing Crosby sold his shares of Del Mar in 1946, but the track remained a place for celebrities like Ava Garnder and Betty Grable to gather.

Crosby’s first wife, Dixie Lee, died in 1950. Her death left Crosby with the need to pay inheritance taxes on her estate. So, Crosby liquidated his assets and the Binglin Stable partnership ended as a result. Crosby was not as involved in horse racing after that point, though he did co-own 1965 King George VI, Queen Elizabth Stakes, and Irish Derby winner Meadow Court.

Bing Crosby passed away on October 14, 1977 at 74 years old. Though many years have passed since he helped create Del Mar, his presence in the Thoroughbred industry can still be felt. Crosby bringing Hollywood to Del Mar gives the old racetrack a colorful and entertaining history. 81 years later, “Where The Turf Meets The Surf” is still played before the first and last race at Del Mar. It is a touching tribute to one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known.


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