This Labor Day Monday, 150 soldiers recently returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan will spend a day at Del Mar as guests of the racetrack and a special group of racehorse owners. The soldiers, most of them wounded and some accompanied by spouses, will be given betting vouchers and assistance picking winners, enjoy lunch, meet leading jockeys and trainers, and participate in a rousing handicapping contest.
“Two weeks ago we were sitting in the worst place on earth,” said one of last year’s attendees. “Now we feel like we’re in the nicest place on earth. It’s almost like we went to another planet.”
The idea for the event was hatched in 2007 by Bob Bone, Ron Brewer, Scott Guenther, Jim Robinson, and Pablo Suarez, who wanted to do something for the men and women who have made the supreme sacrifice for their country.
“The stories you hear from them make your jaw drop,” said Bone in a recent interview. “You can’t believe what they’re going through and what they’ve been through. You feel like you can’t do enough.”
“Scott and I saw some marines one day at the races and thought it would be a nice thing to host them,” said Bone. “Originally, it was just marines from Camp Pendleton that had come back recently from Iraq or Afghanistan. They really loved the day, and after that the word got around and we’ve had a growing list of those that want to come.”
As the event grew and picked up steam over the last four years, it was expanded to include other branches of the Armed Forces, and preference is now given to wounded soldiers.
“We have more wounded than ever attending, including a lot of amputees,” said Bone. “We will have the maximum of 150 this year. The track generously donates the Seabiscuit Room, and we pick up the tab for the food and beverage. Each soldier also gets money to bet with.”
The soldiers are divided into teams of 10 to 15 with team leaders recruited from racing’s ranks – including trainers, agents and other horse owners – who volunteer their time for the afternoon to teach the soldiers about handicapping and help them pick horses in each race. The teams accumulate points, with the winning team at the end of the day getting $300 per person.
“Everyone also gets a voucher to bet with throughout the day,” said Bone. “And the teams take turns going down to the saddling paddock before races and the winner’s circle afterwards.”
At some point in the middle of the afternoon, the entire group lines up in the tunnel and goes out in front of the crowd, where track announcer Trevor Denman says a few words and the soldiers receive a round of applause – usually lasting several minutes.
“It is heart warming the support they get,” said Bone. “I can’t tell you how many people come up and say, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ The trainers and jockeys are all so gracious, allowing them to come to the winner’s circle and even taking personal photos with them. Everybody has been so accommodating. Our main focus is to make sure they have a great day.”
“It’s changed how I look at things in life,” Bone concluded. “If you spend a day and get to know their stories, it changes you. When you think you’re having a bad day, your problems seem insignificant in comparison. These guys have real problems mentally and physically because of what they’ve gone through, which is more than a person should see in a lifetime. It puts a lot of things in perspective. We walk away the winners in the whole deal, believe me.”
Those interested in donating to the event are encouraged to visit the American Soldiers Network website and designate their donation as “Del Mar Military Appreciation Day.”