One of the most recognizable sex symbols of the century has for decades been an animal activist, horse welfare advocate and riding enthusiast—even serving as commissioner of the California Horse Racing Board between 2008 and 2015. This year, two days after the July 18 opening day at the Del Mar Races, Bo Derek will attend her first meeting of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club as its newest board member. We caught up with her before the big event.
What distinguishes the Del Mar Races from others you’ve attended?
I’m lucky! I’ve been to races all over the world. There’s something about the location—the atmosphere of summer and the idea of “where the turf meets the surf.” People are there for the beauty of the place and the majesty of these creatures.
You were able to accomplish a lot as commissioner of the CHRB, including introducing softer riding crops and limiting their use in races. What are your plans for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club?
I’ve said before that the people in Del Mar are the best to work with. Every time there was a safety issue, they stepped up and often enacted a house rule even before it became a racing regulation. When I was working on an issue for the whole state of California, Del Mar was so helpful in sharing contacts, studies and knowledge. There were times I was working on an issue and it was already a working practice at Del Mar. I can’t imagine that there’s much to change, and I don’t have an agenda. My experience with horse racing is that it’s full of people who love horses, so sometimes it’s organizing that energy into rules.
You’ve said that racing is the best life for horses.
If horses aren’t part of our lives in sport, there won’t be many of them except as beasts of burden—and a few people would have them as companions and lawn ornaments. Of all the things we ask of them, the life of a race horse is the most free and natural, with the least amount of pressure. They’re the most indulged, pampered athletes—maybe even more privileged than human athletes! They flourish with the activity and the attention.
What are your favorite events around opening day of the races?
I think that we don’t dress much anymore for much of anything, and I love seeing people dress up and have a fun time. I love being around the horses, so my favorite place is around the paddock. I love to see people’s expressions as those gorgeous creatures parade around.
As a board member, are you allowed to say which horse you’re most excited about this year?
Of course I can say! This year it’s all about Justify for me. I am partial to California horses, and I am just so excited when there’s a horse that stands above all the others. He’s a very exciting horse.
Do you have a favorite moment from last year?
Del Mar hosted Breeder’s Cup last year; the best racehorses from all over the world fly in for this race. My international friends from racing thought it was incredible. Del Mar offers so many opportunities for people to go behind the scenes and see the stables, and what’s involved in the safety of these animals. You can even see the typical day in the life of a racehorse online. It really is the best of California.
You wrote a book: Riding Lessons: Everything That Matters in Life I Learned From Horses. What was your most important lesson?
[Laughs] Horses teach you to be honest. That’s the only way to communicate with them, and it’s a different level than with humans and even other animals. Honesty: That’s what I’ve learned most from them. Del Mar’s 36-day summer season runs from July 18 to Sept. 3.