Out at the Tracks

Illustration by TL Ary It is three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and 105° and the air so thick with smog that the dusty palm trees loom up with a sudden and rather attractive mystery. I have been playing in the sprinklers with the baby and I get in the car and go to Ralph’s Market on the corner of Sunset and Fuller wearing an old bikini bathing suit. —Joan Didion, L.A.-based writer, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Mention summer in Southern California, and beaches, brews, and scantily clad men and women come to mind. It is also the time for America’s No. 5 sport — horseracing. Enthusiasts won’t ever forget the summer of ’78, when Affirmed became the first Santa Anita Derby winner to sweep the Triple Crown, beating Alydar by a nose in three of the greatest moments in racing history. Or when Cigar, who tied Citation’s record of 16 consecutive victories, lost what would have been his 17th straight victory in 1996 at the Pacific Classic at Del Mar before a record crowd of 44,181. Recently, Santa Anita–based Charismatic stunned the world with a win at this year’s Kentucky Derby (he was a 31-1 shot) and at the Preak-ness, garnering a total of $1,536,200.

As with most sports, money makes the horseracing world go round. Wagering was banned in California in 1909, but was brought back in 1933 after the "crash." "I think the Depression caused people to re-examine possible revenue sources," says John Reagan, senior pari-mutuel auditor with the California Horseracing Board. "It was a new way to get the economy kick-started again." Betting was sanctioned at Fairplex Park that same year. The following year, Santa Anita Park, owned by San Francisco dentist Charles Henry "Doc" Strub, opened its doors on Christmas Day to 30,777 fans as well as scores of celebrities, including Al Jolson, Clark Gable and Will Rogers. Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, located a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, would do the same in 1937. Jack L. Warner, of Warner Bros. fame, and numerous movie moguls would unlock the gates at Inglewood’s Hollywood Park in 1938. Los Alamitos Race Course, the last track to permit betting, would become the nation’s most successful quarter-horse track 13 years later.

But the sport’s luster began to fade in the ’40s, when the war effort closed down the tracks. Santa Anita briefly housed thousands of Japanese-Americans, who were detained in horse stalls and the parking lot for several months until desert internment camps were built. After the war, the sport was revitalized because of economic expansion in California. The ’70s marked a boom in popularity thanks in part to star attractions such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. But in the ’80s and early ’90s, enthusiasm for horse-racing plummeted. Some believe that shrinking national interest was the problem, while others blamed competition from hockey, football, basketball, casinos and lotteries. "Our heyday was in the early and late ’70s," says Jeff True, director of marketing for Los Alamitos Race Course. "In the early ’90s there were lotteries in more than 20 states, and Indian and riverboat gaming. We just didn’t have the monopoly on wagering anymore."

Doping also became an issue, but according to True, there is no other sport today that is more regulated than horse-racing. "The technological advances in human medicine have taken hold in horse-racing," he says. "Every horse that wins, as well as two other random horses in a race in California, must submit to a drug test."â

Others close to racing circles opine that a lack of government support caused some parks to close across the country, but a recent Senate tax-relief bill could change that. In 1998, Senator Ken Maddy put forth legislation (Senate Bill 27) that would reduce the tax rate at major tracks to approximately 1.75 percent from 5 percent. "It will make potential buyers more interested in owning horses, because more money can be made on a race-to-race basis, and in turn, more money can go back into track operations. There will be bigger purses, more horses and more choices oddswise," says Chris Esslinger, public relations manager for Santa Anita Park. Another boost came the same year with the formation of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), whose main job is to heighten awareness and promote the sport. Today, with the help of the NTRA and government leniency, horseracing is back in the saddle again in Southern California. "Horseracing is a $25 billion nationwide business, which makes it larger than the TV and the film industry," says True. "It’s very labor-intensive, and the government recognizes that it is a big employer."

Hollywood Park

Hollywood Park’s colorful 61-year history has included a 1951 fire that almost destroyed horseracing in Inglewood forever, when the grandstand and clubhouse became an inferno a quarter of a mile long. Equally dramatic moments came with the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup, when Citation, one of racing history’s greatest thoroughbreds, became horseracing’s first million-dollar earner when he won the classic. At the age of 6, Hollywood’s Native Diver would become the first California-bred thoroughbred to earn $1 million when he won his last of three Gold Cup victories in 1967 before a crowd of 51,664. You can see a memorial statue of Native Diver (who died of intestinal problems shortly after winning a race at Del Mar a few months later) from the stands, while his body rests on the hill overlooking the park. Jockeys have also had their fair share of triumphs. William "The Shoe" Shoemaker, who won 280 stakes at Hollywood, and the Gold Cup a record eight times, retired from racing in 1990, having ridden 2,416 of his record 8,833 winners at Hollywood Park.


Today the stakes are higher at Hollywood Park, which was recently purchased by Churchill Downs for $140 million. This season it will host a record 52 stakes worth more than $9.2 million on its main track, which is one and one-eighth miles, with a seven-and-a-half-furlong chute. Hollywood Park is now open Wednesday through Sunday starting at noon, through July 19. Friday-night horseracing (June 25, July 2, July 9 and July 16 at 7 p.m.) is a must at $1 admission, $1 beers and $1 hot dogs.

For the fans, there are 50 refreshment stands located throughout the main building and grandstand gardens. Inside, the park offers bars and full-service dining, as well as a clubhouse, which has been converted into an area designed for the serious players, equipped with TVs displaying earlier races. More than 3,500 color monitors are propped up throughout the track. But it’s not all about horses. Children can amuse themselves at the track’s carousel, while their parents can take a break from the track to try their hand at the Hollywood Park-Casino, a $20 million state-of-the-art gambling complex, located next door. For the horses, there are 18 barns with 1,958 stalls, 619 tack rooms, 216 feed rooms and accommodations for 489 grooms. Admission is $6.

Santa Anita Park

Santa Anita Park in Arcadia took in its first wager on Christmas Day in 1934. On hand were a reported 30,777 fans, who bet a total of $258,916. The big winner that day was a filly named High Glee, who won the $5,000 Christmas Stakes. It was rumored that owner Charles Strub was in such dire financial straits that the bank had to loan him money to book the bets. As the story goes, the lender was so uneasy about the loan that armed guards were sent to the track to make sure that the money was back that night. The risk paid off for Strub, and for the millions of fans who have attended over the years, witnessing unforgettable moments like Willie Shoemaker’s final race in the $100,000 Legend’s Last Ride at Santa Anita on February 3, 1990.

With a season that lasts virtually all year (September 29 through November 8; December 26 to the end of April), and with a seating capacity of 26,000, Santa Anita has all the amenities for both the serious horse player and the occasional fan, including the infield (open to the public for picnics), a children’s playground, a gift shop and a newsstand. Dining rooms and terraces, snack stands and bars are scattered throughout the park. General admission is $5.â

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

Del Mar’s serene racetrack and picture-perfect location adjacent to the Pacific Ocean have made it the nation’s top-ranked track in daily average attendance for the last seven years. This summer, Del Mar will stage the richest stakes schedule in the track’s 60-year racing history when almost $6 million will be accessible to the West’s top thoroughbreds during the 42-day racing schedule beginning July 22. Some 27 major events will highlight the money-spinning stakes program, valued at $5,975,000. Leading the list is the track’s signature event, the $1 million Pacific Classic on August 29.

From July 22 through September 8, Del Mar opens at noon weekdays and at 11:30 a.m. on weekends, holidays, opening day and closing day. Exceptions are Fridays at 2 p.m., Pacific Classic Day and Labor Day at 10:30 a.m., and Tuesdays, when it’s dark. Grandstand daily admission is $3 ($4 for a reserved seat).

Los Alamitos Race Course

Los Alamitos was a quarter-horse breeding farm in 1947, when businessman Frank Vessels Sr. envisioned the site as the future home of horseracing in Orange County. Today, the 435-acre site is the most successful quarter-horse racetrack in the country and is the only one in Southern California to run quarter-horse, thoroughbred, harness and Arabian races, but its niche has always been quarter-horse racing. Quarter horses have been given the distinction as the fastest athlete — within three or four strides of the gate, a quarter horse will reach a velocity of 55 miles an hour, while a thoroughbred will reach only 35. "I like the athletic ability of quarter horses," says Los Alamitos’ Jeff True. "The owners and trainers tend to be actual horsemen themselves, and many thoroughbred owners and jockeys had their start in quarter-horse racing."


Los Alamitos, in Cypress, is open now through December 19, on Wednesday and Friday (7:15 p.m.), Saturday (6:30 p.m.) and Sunday (5:30 p.m.). Grandstand admission is $3, and is free to everyone 62 or older on Thursday nights. Restaurant dining is available at the Vessels Club and the Turf Terrace Dining Room. Harness racing is from December 26 through April 4.

Fairplex Park

With a racing season never longer than 18 days, Fairplex Park, which is considered to be the fifth leg of the Southern California circuit, facilitates 19 stakes races throughout the meet, including two on opening day. During its early days, Mae West was a constant presence and even had several of her horses at the track during the 1933 meeting. Clark Gable was also a regular at Pomona, usually cheering on his horse Beverly Hills, who came in second in the Los Angeles County Fair Handicap in 1936.

Fairplex Park and the L.A. County Fair are open from September 9 through 26. Gates to the fair open at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, with first post starting at 12:30 p.m. Fairplex Park grandstand admission is included with the price of admission to the fair.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >