Laid-Back Atmosphere And Plenty Of Beer Stations Make For A Fun Day
Every time I go to a horse racing track, I feel as if I’m stepping back in time.
The Roarin’ 20s, of flappers, jazz, the Charleston, and men in wide-brimmed hats. An age of prosperity and overall sports mania.
This is especially the case at Santa Anita Racetrack in Los Angeles (specifically Arcadia, just a few miles from the Rose Bowl). Part of this has to do with the Art Deco style of the main building but also the fact that back in the 20s, horse racing was one of the premier sports in America, right there with baseball and boxing.
Today, the masses pay attention to horse racing only for the Kentucky Derby, with some left-over enthusiasm allowed for the Triple Crown. But whenever I go to Santa Anita or down the coast at Del Mar, I’m reminded of how cool it is to be there at it.
For starters, it has to be the most casual fan experience in all of professional sports. It’s so laid-back, it’s like being at a Spring Training baseball game. The tickets are only about $10, and that’s if you upgrade to the clubhouse (which I recommend; it basically gives you access to the entire facility).
You can also walk right up to the horses in the stable and see them being saddled, watch the jockeys mount the horses during what amounts to a parade lap in an open area, then get right up to the railing so close you practically get dirt splashed on you as the horses roar to the finish line. All the while with a beer in your hand!
There’s no big guys in back shirts or jackets with the word SECURITY on their backs telling you to get back to your seat, that you can’t stand here or there. That’s probably what like at sporting events back in the ’20s. (Now, it seems, people are pushing you everywhere to move, get out of the way, get to your seat, whatever.)
At Santa Anita, fans even have access to a huge luxury box of sorts, the Frontrunner Restaurant. It’s included with the clubhouse ticket (or just pay an extra $3.50), and it’s a huge restaurant the size of two football fields with two long bars.
On bigger weekends it’s impossible to get a table or seat at the bar, so if you’ve not made reservations for a table, the key to securing seat at the bar is to treat it sort of like JazzFest in New Orleans. And that strategy calls for getting there early, staking out a spot and securing it with a jacket or some other personal effect (even the racing newspaper), then wander around to the other areas.
The Frontrunner is modern and clean and is so huge it reminds me of a Vegas casino. It has huge glass windows overlooking the track and infield (though you have to stretch to see the front stretch from anywhere but front-row tables) and has huge mingling potential. Regulars tell me it has far better food than the jackets-required “chandelier” room next door, and from looking at other people’s plates the hand-made Saratoga potato chips sure look tasty.
Regardless of how you go about it, the Frontrunner should serve as your home base at Santa Anita.
At horse racing tracks, there are so many places to explore. They even have an infield and it seems that whenever I go to Santa Anita there’s a craft beer festival and band playing in the infield.
It really takes a full day to walk everywhere, all at a casual “no hurries” pace. Even the races are spaced apart so there’s plenty of time to evaluate your picks – I always go for Hispanic jockeys and European horses for the races on grass, a strategy that generally pays off for me – and you can place a bet right up to the time the horses are going into the starting gate.
Electronic machines are one way to bet, but I prefer the interaction with the people behind the counters. They are always friendly, cheerful, helpful for us novice betters and always say “good luck to you!” I think that is splendid.
There are concession stands everywhere so getting a drink is no problem (except on Opening Day at Del Mar, where there’s a wait for everything). Beers at Santa Anita are varied – Bud Light, Budweiser, Stella Artois and even Chicago’s Goose Island craft beer among them – and cost $6.75. That’s not much more than at a bar (it’s 6 bucks for a Stella at the First Cabin, the best bar in Arcadia, just a few blocks from Santa Anita) and a lot less than at Dodger Stadium.
And while some of the old-timers pouring the beer at the inside concession spots can be a bit crusty, you can get service with a smile – and dimples – at the main bar overlooking the paddock. That bar appeals to young people, primary because its bartenders and waitresses are so appealing. They are great-looking girls and have a lively bounce in their service so much so you’re tempted to spend the entire day right there without moving except to make a bet.
I’ll also make one more recommendation: For food, go to the sandwich carving station in the clubhouse. For $8 you get thick slices roast beef, turkey or corned beef. The carver does not hold back and the sandwich is thicker than a big-better’s wallet. Be sure and get the slicked pickles on the side.
Whenever I’m at Santa Anita, I always ask myself the same question: Why do I not come here more often?
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