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Must Visit Horse Racing Tracks In California

Home to one of the oldest and most established horse race betting scenes in the country, visiting California’s horse racing tracks should be on the bucket list of any horse racing enthusiast. The state’s first racetrack was built in 1858 in suburban San Francisco. Today, the most beautiful race track in California is the Del Mar race track, you can find beautiful beachside places to stay in the area. After all, there is a reason everyone calls Del Mar “the place where the surf meets the turf”. But enough with the introduction and let’s get straight to business. Below, we’ve listed the best horse racing tracks in California every enthusiast has to visit. 

Del Mar Racetrack

This horse racing track is exactly 1 mile (1.609 km) long, and races are run counter-clockwise. It has a capacity of 44,000 and it is the second largest horse-racing venue in the western United States, after the nearby Santa Anita Park. In 2007, synthetic racing surface Polytrack was installed to help reduce injuries to horses and jockeys. However, dirt made its comeback eight years later after a debate over the effectiveness of the controversial synthetic material. 

Del Mar could be the most beautiful race track in the United States. Beauty doesn’t guarantee victory, but it helps when you lose. With new types of bets added last season, there are now 17 ways to wager at this racetrack. Always remember to wager responsibly.

Brief History -

In 1937, the Del Mar Race Track opened its doors to the betting public, the track was established by Bing Crosby with Paramount Studios being one of its sponsors. Crosby also made sure that the Del Mar Turf Club had a clubhouse worthy of a movie set. He directly oversaw the design and construction of the venue, knowing that if he wanted to capture the attention and money of other celebrities, he would have to design a clubhouse that was as lavish as their tastes. Patterned after the Iturbide Hotel in Mexico City, the glamorous Clubhouse included a “grand stairway, worm-eaten oak furniture, Spanish chandeliers, mirrors and thick carpets.” It seems like, even so long ago, his design didn’t fail to impress, even today, the racetrack is known for Hollywood celebrities apparitions such as Jimmy Durante, Lucy and Desi Arnaz, Burt Bacharach, and Angie Dickenson. 

The first Bing Crosby Stakes was held at Del Mar in 1946 and that same year the Santa Fe Railroad began offering a racetrack special bringing spectators, bettors, and horses to Del Mar from Los Angeles. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the track became the Saratoga of the West for summer racing. The track had large purses for many stakes, many of which were won by the famous jockey Bill Shoemaker.

Interesting fact, Bing Crosby, with the help of Midge Polesie, came up with the so known catchphrase, “Where the Turf Meets the Surf”, through a song:

“Where the turf meets the surf

Down at Old Del Mar

Take a plane, take a train, take a car

There’s a smile on every face

And a winner in each race

Where the turf meets the surf at Del Mar.”

Santa Anita Park

Santa Anita Park is located in Arcadia, California, it has a one-mile (1,609 m) natural dirt main track which rings a turf course measuring 0.9 mile. In addition, it has an unusual hillside turf course which crosses the dirt and had been used mainly to run turf races at a distance of "about" 6½ furlongs, as well as longer races at 1¼ miles, 1½ miles and about 1¾ miles. This type of track is one of the few of its kind in America.

This thoroughbred racetrack holds some prominent horse racing events, such as the Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita Handicap, Front Runner Stakes, and Gold Cup. 

The Santa Anita Park racing season starts Sept 9 and ends Oct 27 so there plenty of time to get your trip planned.

Brief history -

It was originally built as part of Rancho Santa Anita, but it was closed in 1909 and burned in 1912. It reopened as Santa Anita Park on Christmas Day in 1934, becoming the first racetrack in California.

The Santa Anita Handicap, the race the track is known for, was run for the first time in February of the following year, awarding $100,000 in purse money. This was the largest amount that any race in the United States had produced at the time, and was just the beginning of the glitz and glamour pouring into the park.

Santa Anita continued to rise well into the year of 1940, when Seabiscuit raced his final race and won the Santa Anita Handicap. However, this growth was hindered when racing at the track was suspended due to the Second World War. During WWII, the park was used as a Japanese American internment center with 17,000 people living in the stables.

When the war was finally over, the park reopened in 1945 and it immediately climbed back to where it was. This was also when the downhill turf course was added, introducing a distinct European flair to the southern California track.

Golden Gate Fields

Golden Gate Fields is set on 140 acres (0.57 km2) of land in the cities of Albany and Berkeley, it features a one-mile all-weather main course and a 7 furlong turf course. It is one of the few tracks in the world with a Tapeta surface. Tapeta, created by Michael Dickinson, makes speed biases a moot point. 

Brief history -

In April 1974, Northern Californian horse racing history was made, when Golden Gate Fields had the first two million dollar day – it was California Derby day. On another California Derby Day, three years later, an attendance record for the Bay area was set when 26,108 fans showed up. In 1980, Golden Gate Fields sought to modernize the track by introducing one-window wagering where bettors could bet and cash in their winnings at the same window. 

In 1990, the six million dollar plateau is passed and attendance continues to rise, with another attendance record of 34,976 horse racing fans. Two years later, Russell Baze accomplishes an amazing feat as he crosses the finish line in first place seven out of nine times. He set record for most wins in a meet at 178 wins. The very next year, Baze became the 23rd jockey to amass 4,000 victories. He did it riding Frank Musso at Golden Gate Fields.

Los Alamitos Race Course

Los Alamitos Race Course is a horse racing track in Cypress, California with an outer track of 1 mile, which hosts the thoroughbred horse races and an inner one of 0.625 miles, which is used for the other breeds. It is one of the most important quarter horse race tracks in the nation, maybe even the most important. The Champion of Champions, a $1 million Quarter Horse event, is run here annually.

Brief history -

Before there were Ducks and Angels in Anaheim and before there were Dodgers or Lakers in Los Angeles, there was Quarter Horse racing at Los Alamitos Race Course. What started out as informal match races on the Vessels Ranch in 1947 has grown into year-round Quarter Horse racing in California.

Frank Vessels, Sr., the patriarch of the fabled Vessels family was the man who founded Los Alamitos Race Course. He came to California from Kentucky in 1920 with exactly $19 in his pocket. Vessels started a small construction company that specialized in building drilling platforms for the oil business, but only after nearly three decades of struggling. After 20 years with his own construction company, Vessels finally had the money to chase what had become a dream for the Kentucky native - he decided to build a racetrack on a portion of his 435-acre Orange County ranch.

There is one constant in the history of Los Alamitos, for the first 35 years, it was owned and operated by a member of the Vessels family. 

However, in the mid 1980s the track went through some hard times as ownership passed to new hands. It was not until 1990 that those rocky times ended when a man very familiar with the history of the track came forward to become a part of its history. 

That man was Ed Allred. He brought drastic changes and the track has enjoyed tremendous growth in his hands. The major change in the face of Los Alamitos Race Course in the past 20 years has been the addition of The Vessels Club, an $8 million lavish Turf Club built by Allred, named in honor of the founding family of the track. Since its opening in December of 1995, The Vessels Club has earned a reputation of one of the finest horse racing venues in the country. In addition, the food in The Vessels Club has earned awards from several restaurant associations. It was also named the top sports park restaurant in Southern California. More recent additions such as the Players Room, Rodney's Bar, Schwanie's Grill at the Gap and Paddock Terrace have added to Los Alamitos' fan enjoyment.

In conclusion, the horse racing tracks in California each offer an unique experience, are packed with fascinating historical facts and events  and they are surely places you should not miss if you are an enthusiast.

About the author: Julio Sanchez is the owner at “Cardiff Vacations”, a luxury vacation rentals company in Cardiff by-the-Sea, CA.