Quest for hats: A hat is a hat is a hat, especially come Del Mar Opening Day and now the Breeders Cup

The artist as a young hat designer/Waldo Nilo

Came opening day, Friday, July 16 at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club; hats, hats and more hats were the madcap sidebar to the main story of the moment, namely the excitement of racing’s return. That sorta post-pandemic opening day was not only about big bets and fast horses, but celebrating the season in style.

This year, the Breeders Cup, aka the Super Bowl of racing, doffs a hat’s on encore to the Fairgrounds on Nov. 5 and Nov. 6.

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 Friday, July 16, 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.

Del Mar’s 82nd racing season will open on Friday, July 16 and run through Labor Day Monday, September 6.

All fans wishing to attend must obtain a seating package in advance of their arrival. Admission tickets and parking passes will be included in the package. The track will put seats on sale online on Friday, June 18 (go to with a pre-sale available on Thursday, June 17 for those that sign up at the Del Mar website (

“We are delighted to be able to welcome our fans back to Del Mar,” said DMTC president and COO Josh Rubinstein. “We appreciate their patience as we have all adapted to the changing circumstances over the last 15 months. We also appreciate the thoughtful guidance and cooperation we have received from the California Department of Public Health, the San Diego County Department of Public Health along with Dr. Ghazala Sharieff, Chief Medical Officer of Scripps Health, and her expert staff.”

Under current California Department of Public Health guidelines, fans will be required to wear masks when visiting Del Mar, except when eating or drinking in designated areas. However, California Governor Gavin Newsom is scheduled to issue revised guidance on June 15th and track officials will adjust requirements on face coverings based on the new guidelines.

Del Mar will offer seating in its Stretch Run (Grandstand), Clubhouse, Turf Club, Skyrooms, Luxury and Celebrity Suites and its five major restaurants. Total seating at the track is 14,994. Track officials will have more to say about General Admission access over the next several weeks.

“We will continue to monitor public health guidelines and adjust our plans as the state makes additional progress and updates its recommendations,” said Rubinstein.

Besides the sale and pre-sale arrangements online, Del Mar will be offering the purchase of reserved seating packages by phone (858-792-4242) starting on Monday, June 21.

First post daily at the seaside oval will be 2 p.m. on all days except Fridays. Opening Day Friday will have a 2 p.m. post, but then Fridays thereafter will see a 4 p.m. start with the exceptions of the last two Fridays of the meet (August 27 and September 3) when things get started at 3:30 p.m. The first two weeks of the season will feature Friday-through-Sunday three-day weekends.  For the remainder of the meet, racing will be conducted on a Thursdays-through-Sunday basis with Closing Day on Labor Day Monday.

1 Comment on "Quest for hats: A hat is a hat is a hat, especially come Del Mar Opening Day and now the Breeders Cup"

  1. Nordstrom is not at Del Mar Plaza.

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