10 Race Tracks Every Horse Racing Fan Should Visit
If you spend your time playing the races at some stuffy OTB or at home with TVG on the tube, then you're missing out on the greatness of the thoroughbred racing experience. Every horse racing fan should visit the great race tracks to soak up the ambiance, feel the crowd's adrenaline, and see the beautiful and magnificent thoroughbred horses up close and in person. Below, I've listed ten horse racing tracks that everyone who loves the sport of kings should visit at least once in their lives—and preferably much more than just once!
1. Santa Anita Park
Ah, "the Great Race Place." Santa Anita Park was the first track I ever visited, and it's still my favorite. Nothing can beat the majestic backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains, and there's no more beautiful or better-designed paddock in the country. Even on a slow Friday, the track still gets enough visitors to make it feel alive and happening, and there's no track in the country that handles large crowds better. Getting in and out is a breeze even when there are 40,000 people packing the place, as does still happen on occasion.
2. Saratoga Racecourse
Saratoga is a gorgeous historic racetrack in a racing-mad city packed with horse racing fans. What could be better? A trip to "The Spa" is like a trip back in time, and it's something every racing fan should do at least once in their lives. Saratoga can be hot and humid in August, but who cares? A muggy day in Saratoga is better than a perfect day anywhere else. Saratoga has a country fair atmosphere that makes it the most family-friendly of tracks. Be sure to visit the Horse Racing Hall of Fame located just across Union Avenue from the race track.
3. Keeneland Race Course
There's something magical about Keeneland. From the well-manicured grounds to the lovely stone clubhouse, there's an understated elegance to the place that makes you feel like you're somewhere very special. The racing is always top-notch, and big daily crowds make for a fun and lively atmosphere. My only complaint is that it's sometimes too crowded, making it hard to get a look at the horses in the beautiful paddock and walking ring. The spring meet is a fun time to visit because everyone has derby fever, but the weather is typically better during the fall meet.
4. Del Mar Race Track
Don't you just love it when they play Bing Crosby's "When the Surf Meets the Turf" at the start of every day's racing at the Del Mar Race Track? It's a fantastic track just a stone's throw from the Pacific Ocean, with big crowds and six-day-a-week racing that's as good as California horse racing gets these days. Make an effort to go on opening day, when all the Southern California ladies dress up and show it off for the boys.
5. Churchill Downs
Personally, I hate huge crowds, so I never have and will never visit Churchill Downs on Derby Day, but how can any horse racing fan pass up the chance to visit the home of the Kentucky Derby. Sadly, the famous twin spires have been somewhat eclipsed by grand new construction, but it's still a thrill to see them as you pull into the parking lot. Churchill is very much a neighborhood race track, and that gives it a friendly, urban vibe. If you time your trip right, you can hit up both Churchill and Keeneland in the same week, since their meets are contiguous and they're only an hour and a half drive from each other. Be sure to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum while you're at Churchill—they've got lots of cool memories and memorabilia.
6. Monmouth Park
"The Shore" is a very cool historic race track situated near the Atlantic in the wilds of suburban New Jersey. The racing at Monmouth Park isn't quite major league, but there is still plenty of good-stakes action during the long summer meet. Weather can be hot and humid, so dress accordingly.
7. Ruidoso Downs
Quarter horse racing, anyone? New Mexico's Ruidoso Downs is a Mecca for the Quarter horse set and a great place to visit even if you're more interested in the thoroughbreds. The beautiful mountain setting has a magic feel to it, and the racing is quite good, too, including the All American Futurity with its purse of more than $2 million.
8. Arlington Park
Located in suburban Chicago, the Arlington Park grandstand, which was rebuilt after a 1985 fire, is probably the nicest of any race track in America. The summer racing isn't on a par with Del Mar or Saratoga, but the fields are full and a good turf course and one-mile chute on the dirt track make for interesting racing. Reserve a table in the Million Room, a nice restaurant with a killer view of the track. It's a perfect place to settle down for the day, and the cost is very reasonable.
9. Belmont Park
The grand old lady may be a little down on her luck, but she's still got what it takes. Sure, it's a little sad to see such a magnificent track with only a few thousand people rattling around the cavernous grandstand, but on a beautiful autumn day, there are few better places to be. Even Belmont Stakes day is a good time to go for a crowd-phobe like me, at least if no horse is going for the Triple Crown, since Belmont can easily accommodate 50,000 people with room to spare. Visit now before it gets turned into a shopping mall.
10. Oaklawn Park
A great little track in the resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, Oaklawn Park has a nice, glass-encased grandstand with (ugh) slot-type machines inside. There's also a lot to see and do in the surrounding area. They offer very decent quality day-to-day racing, but plan your trip during the Racing Festival of the South—this event boasts lots of good stakes races on tap, including the Kentucky Derby prep race Oaklawn Derby. My only compliant is the lack of a turf course. What's up with that?