In a sea of hundreds of people celebrating the annual Del Mar Opening Day, no one stood out quite like Richard Polacek.
A retired engineer and on-again, off-again participant of the Del Mar Opening Day Hat Contest, Polacek donned a hat for the contest’s 25th anniversary that was at least two feet tall, weighed a dozen pounds and required two hand straps and a cushion for the top of his head.
Despite his often complex designs and towering features, his hats have never won the grand prize in the seven years he’s been a part of it (though he’s won second place three times), but his reasons for entering are based more on fun than competition.
“We first noticed that there weren’t many men in the contest, going back six or seven years,” he said. “So my very first hat had some animation. It had some audio with an announcer calling the race and some horses on the track. I won second place with that. The best I’ve done is second.”
After bowing out of the competition due to the increasing number of intricate hats that he felt he couldn’t compete with, Polacek was once again inspired to enter.
“I happened to walk by this rose garden where I live, and I saw this trestle and this swing,” he said. "I thought, ‘That’s an idea for a hat.’ And here it is.”
On his cranium sat a miniature version of that trestle surrounded by roses, with a brown horse propped up inside and a sign that read “SWING’N DEL MAR.” And thanks to Polacek’s engineering abilities, the sign lit up.
Another crowd pleaser was the mother-daughter duo Ampara and Shebon Brean. Ampara Brean’s hat was a Mexican-inspired sombrero with a flowing teal veil that had fake money glued to it. Her daughter went in a more aquatic direction and fastened a stuffed octopus on her head and surrounded it with other marine life.
“We’ve been doing [the contest] together for 15 years, but we never win,” Ampara Brean laughed. “But it doesn’t matter. We like to be here and feel like celebrities because everyone wants to take pictures of us.”
So who did win this year’s Del Mar Opening Hat Day Contest? The title of Grand Prize Winner went to Allison Karlstrand of Capistrano Beach. She won a one-night stay at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, dinner for two at Addison Restaurant, two tickets to the Opening Day After Pony Party at Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa, a Studio Savvy Salon gift basket and $300 cash.
The rest of the winners are as follows.
- Most Glamorous: Aubrey Fohl of San Juan Capistrano
- Best Racing Theme: Christina Stutz of San Diego
- Funniest/Most Outrageous: Belinda Barry of Walnut Creek
- Best Fascinator: Paige Fohl of San Juan Capistrano
Charity volunteer Susan Leonard said that the time-honored tradition usually brings between 100-200 participants every year. This year’s contest had more than 300 contestants.
“People love to shop for hats, decorate their own, tell their story and express their freedom of creation,” she said. “And it’s a chance for some of them to get goofy."
The Del Mary Racetrack originally opened back in 1937, and this year celebrated its 80th summer racing season. First post daily is 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on all 4 O’Clock Fridays. For more information, visit dmtc.com.