Visiting a horse track sometimes feels like you’re stepping back in time. There is a total of 112 thoroughbred and harness racing tracks across the United States, and many of the most popular tracks in America are also registered as historical landmarks. These tracks offer up historical significance along with vintage architecture. When you visit some of these classic horse tracks, you’re also gaining a valuable lesson in both thoroughbred racing and American history. The next time you’re wondering where to spend your next holiday, consider these top horse tracks…
1. SANTA ANITA PARK
LOCATION: Arcadia, California
The heart of racing in Southern California, Santa Anita Park first opened on Christmas Day in 1934. Located just outside downtown Los Angeles, picturesque Santa Anita is nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains. The Santa Anita Derby, which has been running since 1935, is one of the richest and most-heavily attended events in all of horse racing. The current purse is $1 million.
THINGS TO DO: Since you’re so close to the Pacific Ocean, head down to Venice Beach for its vibrant cultural scene, or head to Santa Monica for shopping and great people-watching. For the stargazers, you can cruise the Sunset Strip or wander around the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Gamblers will love the close proximity of San Anita to numerous Los Angeles-area casinos. After you try out your lucky numbers at the race track, you can head to one of the local casinos and press your luck. Try the “small wheel,” which is what the word roulette means in French, or 21, the traditional name for blackjack, which has been played for more than 600 years. Commerce, Hustler, and the Bicycle are three of L.A.’s most popular card rooms if you’re looking for some high-stakes action.
2. CHURCHILL DOWNS
LOCATION: Louisville, Kentucky
History. Hallowed ground. The twin spires of Churchill Downs atop the grandstand are iconic. Churchill Downs is the location of the most prestigious horse race in the world – The Kentucky Derby. The thoroughbred race has been running since 1875 and has no intentions of ever stopping. The rowdy festivities at the Kentucky Derby attract celebrities from all over the world. The weekend at the Derby is so epic, that it launched the career of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
THINGS TO DO: If you love college basketball, then you have the opportunity to attend games from the Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats. Be careful and make sure you wear the proper color clothing to the game because you will stand out in a sea of red (Louisville) or a sea of blue (Kentucky). And for those of you with an affinity for fine spirits like authentic Kentucky bourbon, then you can visit the Makers Mark distillery located less than an hour away in Loretto, KY.
3. BELMONT PARK
LOCATION: Elmont, New York
Belmont Park is also the home of the Belmont Stakes, which everyone knows as the third and final leg of the Triple Crown. In the earliest days of aviation, Belmont Park was also the home to numerous air shows in the 1910s, which drew in crowds from surrounding states who wanted to see an airplane for the first time.
THINGS TO DO: Belmont Park is located on the border of New York City and Long Island. Beach lovers will have plenty of opportunity to enjoy the local state beaches. Or if you’re looking to rub shoulders with the jet set, then head out east to the posh Hamptons. The lure of New York City is impossible to ignore and downtown Manhattan is a quick train ride away.
LOCATION: Saratoga Springs, New York
Saratoga Race Course is the third-oldest course in America and known for its historic gazebo where gamblers watch the races. One of the principle founders of the Saratoga track was Cornelius Vanderbilt. Also known as “The Commodore,” Vanderbilt owned the New York Central Rail Road and was one of the wealthiest men in all of North America. Located in the rolling hills of upstate New York, Saratoga Springs was the holiday spot for New York City’s rich and elite in the 19th Century. These days, the area is known for its arts, antiques, and hippy organic farmers.
THINGS TO DO: Visit the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which is an outdoor venue nested in a state park. SPAC is one of the most magnificent outdoor theatres to see and hear a concert. The Battle of Saratoga in October 1777 was the turning part of the Revolutionary War against Great Britain. Visit the nearby town of Stillwater, where the historic battle occurred and see where British forces officially surrendered to General George Washington.
5. DEL MAR
LOCATION: Del Mar, California
Where the surf meets the turf! That’s the funny, yet memorable rhyming slogan for Del Mar. Situated just 20 miles north of San Diego, Del Mar Race Track is one of the most beautiful courses in the world. It’s the second largest in the Western United States. It was originally built by a consortium of well-known Hollywood stars and musicians including Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, and Oliver Hardy (of Laurel & Hardy fame). Del Mar was the location of the infamous race in 1938 between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti. It was one of the largest sporting events of its time and spawned numerous books and films. During World War II, Del Mar track was closed and the facilities were used for training marines.
THINGS TO DO: Since you’re not far from Mexico, you can make a quick day trip across the border to Tijuana. There are also numerous casinos in the area plus access to nearby Solana Beach. The Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach hosts live music and they book top touring acts in an intimate setting.
HONORABLE MENTION: KEENELAND
One more track! It was really hard not to include a wondrous track like Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky on the list. If it were not for Churchill Downs’ storied history with the Kentucky Derby, Keeneland would be considered the best track in Kentucky. Ever since it opened its gates in 1936, opening day at Keeneland is one of the most exciting days on the racing calendar. The majority of the scenes of the 2003 feature film Seabiscuit were shot at Keeneland.
DON’T MISS THE TRACKS!
So there you have it, the Top 5 horse tracks in America (Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Saratoga, and Del Mar) plus one we couldn’t resist mentioning (Keeneland). With horse racing’s overall numbers sadly declining over the last few years, you should really visit these majestic pieces of history before it’s too late!