Quest for hats: A hat is a hat is a hat, especially come Del Mar Opening Day

The artist as a young hat designer/Waldo Nilo

Come opening day, Wednesday, July 17 at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club; hats, hats and more hats are the madcap sidebar to the main story of the moment, namely the excitement of racing’s return.

Thus begins the big fat hat dilemma for otherwise fashionable and well-appointed ladies.

Many women say they love hats, but never have occasion to wear them. Others complain a top hat, design-wise, is hard to find.

Del Mar Opening Day ladies love their hats/Courtesy

“Hat Day is opening Day,” said Karen Moller, an official in the Country Friends at a previous Del Mar Opening Day. It’s one of Rancho Santa Fe’s leading charitable groups, with 1,100 members and a history of donating more than $12 million to local social service organizations since its inception in 1954. the ladies also have held a very impressive hat contest during their annual Day at the Races event, traditionally the second day of the meet, for 50 years.

“We have a hat parade and contest,” Moller said. “It’s just fun for women to find that perfect hat for the perfect outfit, but there are not many opportunities for women to wear hats.

“Hats are hard to find,” Moller continued. “Nordstrom has a ton of them and boutiques in Del Mar Plaza, but that’s about it.”

Or consider the perspective of Ara Shamlyan, owner of the now defunct Scalini Restaurant, a longtime former fixture mere minutes from the Del Mar track, and a former partner in Kentucky Derby winning ownership groups..

Also a racing enthusiast, Shamlyan knows Royal Ascot at York, the premiere English thoroughbred racing event where hats have been the main course for hundreds of years. He has had is photo taken in the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby with victorious Rancho Santa Fe horse breeders, and owners, such as Bob and Beverly Lewis.

“I’ve been going to the races here for many years,” Shamlyan said. “Wearing hats is the perfect thing to do here.

“But buying hats in San Diego is difficult,” Shamlyan quickly added. “There are no hat shops. It’s not like the Kentucky Derby where the hotels set up hat boutiques for the women so they can match their hats to their dresses.”

It is not enough to have just any hat, people say. those in the fashionable know must have a great hat, a hat with character and panache, a hat that stands up and out, over, and above the crowd of ordinary, more pedestrian, walking around hats.

Enter artist/designer Claudia Hapeman

Claudia Hapeman models one of her designer hats/Waldo Nilo

Best known locally for her ornate carnival masks. Seeing the need for high quality, exquisite and distinctive hats., and realizing the Del Mar racing crowd was counting down the days to the big show of hats at the track, Hapeman sprang into action.

Hats to her left, hats to her right, hats morning, noon and night. Hapeman spent the last few weeks buried at her studio on a quest for hats. She designed and personally constructed about 30 hats — chic, stylish, smart, cool, hot, coolly coolly hot, in vogue, hip and smashing hats.

And now, the fruits of Hapeman’s hat designs, part of her Modern Millinery collection and, are ready for their close-ups.

“Variety and variation, combination and customization,” Hapeman said. “The sky is the limit for these hats. They are wearable, comfortable, well-balanced. They can be conversation pieces, works of art, decorated and highly individualized.”

Hapeman’s hats are priced from $65 to $500 depending on materials and complexity. She constructs them as one would a story or work of art. There’s a background, middle ground and foreground providing a layered, and structurally sound look. Simpler hats may take a few off-and-on hours. Ornate, potential hat contest winners may take two or three days.

Most importantly, while a store such as Nordstrom has quality hats to be sure, they also are available to the many, not the only. Hapeman’s collection is unique in offering one-of-a-kind hats nobody else will wear.

Hapeman grew up in Dutchess County, New York, horse country in the Hudson River Valley, about 90 miles north of New York City. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

An artist specializing in 3-D imagery and sculpture among other disciplines, Hapeman lived around Rancho Santa Fe for more than 10 years before recently relocating back to Dutchess County. She has been a longtime horse trainer and professional show jumper rider, winning numerous awards and competitions.

These days the inimitable hat designer, and award-winning show jumper rider, raises horse at an idyllic ranch near Ocala, Florida.

Hats, however, may be commissioned, or obtained, through SoCal Venetian Masks at

Hats, hats and more hats, courtesy Claudia Hapeman/Waldo Nilo

Hats aside,  Hapeman also featured lines of capes and accessories such as mask sticks and stands, and yes, who doesn’t need one — feather boas.

Hapeman had an A-kist Hollywood career. She appeared in one of the first reality TV shows, the infamous Gene Simmons’ “Family Jewels” as she worked with the family on designs for daughter Sophie’s Sweet 16 party.

Hapeman also designed masks for the Touchstone movie “You Again”,  from Disney Pictures, and directed by Andy Fickman. The movie featured Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Kristin Chenowith and Betty White.

More than 100 of Hapeman’s high-end, designer masks were featured by the Gilt Groupe, an invitation-only luxury shopping web site. She also had a relationship with high-end costume designer Frankie Stein. And not least, but last, she has created several masks for a super A-List personality whose name can not be publicly revealed due to contractual obligations.


Tens of thousands of horse racing enthusiasts are expected to attend this year’s Opening Day on Wednesday, July 17, which will kick off a month-and-a-half of racing and other events at the track “where the turf meets the surf.”

Gates open promptly at 11:30 a.m. on Opening Day for a day filled with festivities, including the Del Mar Races long-standing tradition, the famous Opening Day Hat Contest.

Just inside the Stretch Run admission gates, at the Plaza de Mexico, guests will compete to see who has the best headware in five different categories: “Most Glamorous,” “Best Racing Theme,” “Funniest/Most Outrageous,” “Best Fascinator,” and “Flowers/All Other.”

One by one, contestants will strut their stuff, showcasing their fancy, elaborate hats as they compete to win their share of more than $5,000 in total prizes. Those who are interested in participating can register at the event for free until 3 p.m.

This year, first place winners in each category will receive $300, plus a Studio Savvy gift basket valued at $200. Second place winners will walk away with $200, while third place winners score $100.

The biggest winner of the day – the Bing Crosby Grand Prize winner – will receive a one-night stay at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar and a multi-course dinner for two with wine pairings at Del Mar’s lavish Addison Restaurant. This prize is worth more than $1,500.

The Hat Contest is part of a tradition that dates back to the Del Mar Racetrack’s opening in 1937, when Bing Crosby greeted guests as they entered the seaside track.

According to organizers, the Opening Day contest was officially established in 1995. Each year, the competition is fierce with hardcore hat enthusiasts turning out by the droves to show off their creations.

Many spend months meticulously designing that perfect hat to match their Opening Day attire flawlessly. Year after year, hundreds of participants enter the Hats Contest, making it the place to see and be seen on Opening Day.

While the races are the draw of the day, those wanting a little extra fun can attend one of two race day events.

During the races, “The Party” will be held track-side, equipped with a DJ, a craft beer and cocktail garden and a private wagering area. Tickets to The Party cost $35 and include Stretch Run admission.

A separate “After Pony Party” will be held at the Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa once the races come to a close. The after party will feature a DJ and dancing, food and drink. Tickets start at $125 and come with a welcome drink and all-you-can-eat tastings starting at 6 p.m.

The 80th summer racing season runs through Sept. 2, with the track closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Gates open two hours before first post, which is at 2 p.m. everyday except Fridays, when first post is at 4 p.m.

Admission tickets start at $6 per person and can be purchased online or over the phone through the racetrack’s ticketing office. On Opening Day, prices start at $15. Head to the track on a Wednesday for free stretch run admission.

There are several public transportation options, and even specially priced train tickets, to help you get to the races. For more information, visit here.

The racetrack will host food-inspired and themed events throughout the season, including Family Fun Day with a plush horse giveaway for kids on Sunday, July 21, the Uncorked Wine Festival with sips from more than 150 wineries on Saturday July 27, the Taco and Beer Festival featuring dozens of local taco shops on Aug. 3, and more.

Every Sunday, guests can indulge in a three-course meal specially created by local celebrity chef Brian Malarkey. For $100 a person, guests will get a special Turf Club table reserved for race day. The Taste of the Turf Club dining experience includes a choice of appetizer, entre desert and bottomless sips of either mimosas, bloody marys or sparkling wine.

On weekend mornings, visitors can get their most important meal of the day while watching the horses warm up from the Clubhouse Terrace Restaurant. Reservations to the Daybreak at Del Mar, which also includes behind the scenes lessons from a racing broadcaster, can be made from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.

And on Fridays, visitors can partake in Happy Hour, where signature cocktails will be 50 percent off until 6 p.m.

Music is also at the forefront of this year’s racing season. On most Fridays and Saturdays throughout the season, entertainment includes a concert on the Seaside Stage after the final race of the day. This year’s lineup includes reggae with Ziggy Marley, country with Midland and 80s rock with cover band Wayward Sons. Check out SoundDiego’s guide to concerts at the racetrack’s here.

The racetrack’s 80th season opens in the shadow of Santa Anita Racetrack’s controversy. The Southern California track’s troubled racing season closed in late June after the deaths of 30 horses and the banning of a Hall of Fame trainer.

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club made changes to their safety and inspection procedures before the start of the 2019 season, including creating a panel of veterinarians to review each horse before each race and restricting horses from receiving controversial anti-inflammatory medication within 48 before a race.

— Courtesy NBC San Diego 7 and Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

1 Comment on "Quest for hats: A hat is a hat is a hat, especially come Del Mar Opening Day"

  1. Nordstrom is not at Del Mar Plaza.

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