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DEL MAR, Calif. — Del Mar opening day kicked off Friday as fans were welcomed back to the race track for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The horse races returned for the 82nd season at limited capacity, with roughly 17,000 to 18,000 in attendance, according to track officials.

Last summer, the grandstands were empty because of the pandemic.

“Last year I didn’t have to worry about the turnstiles, there weren’t any,” said Joe Harper, president and CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. “But this year, thank goodness we are back in action.”

No face masks are required for fans, while track workers have to wear one unless they are vaccinated.

The races were not only a thrill for fans, but also for the jockeys.

“It was quite sad last year, and we are on the right path,” one jockey said. “It is a pleasure to see everyone back.”

From the races to the 27th annual Opening Day Hats Contest, fans say it’s a must to be back at the race track.

“There is nothing like being here in person and having an atmosphere of racing, and you can’t get that on TV,” one fan said.

Fans must buy tickets in advance and there are no walkups to attend opening day through the weekend. However, Harper says that could soon change.

“I think we will probably meet again or after the first weekend and decide maybe we don’t need to do that, as long as we keep the crowds down,” Harper said.

Races will continue through Sunday, with the same weekend schedule next week.