all the buzz about the rebuilt mile chute and the griping about the new paddock
bar, everything that is good about Saratoga has been there for a while. A long
old, wooden grandstand. The old gables on the roof. The old red and white
awnings. The old walkway for the jockeys. The old Shake Shack. OK, most
everything is old.
have not been there in six years, but it looks the same. And I bet it feels the
same. Those of us now far, far away are left to look vicariously through the
lens of the pan camera that is so low that it seems like it is mounted on a
submarine off the coast of Loughberry Lake. I do long for just one more trip
back to 267 Union Avenue.
Saratoga the best experience going for racing fans and horseplayers? It ranks
right up there. But how high?
question and the desire to stoke comments at the bottom of this page are the
reason we have lists. Thus, these are the top 15 tracks where I have attended
I lived in Australia for three years, so I was fortunate to have attended three
Melbourne Cups, as many runnings of the Victoria Derby and a lot of other races
at a venue now 182 years old that constantly is being reinvented. To me this is
the best venue in the world for any sport. Period. My favorite place to watch
and wager was on the second floor of the five-story members stand, complete
with an enormous indoor bookmakers ring and an easy walk to seats overlooking
the last 150 yards to the finish. As entertaining as the races were the attempts
by high-heeled patrons to keep their shoes on while pouring themselves into the
train back to the heart of Melbourne. Sobriety optional.
My favorite track in America used to be Arlington, what with its perfect, clean
grandstand. Now that it has gone from horse flesh to pigskin, Del Mar moved up.
It is not just the quintessential ocean setting. The sightlines – blissfully
not blocked by infield trees – are well situated. It is not hard to place a
bet, especially in and around the wonderful restaurants and bars and gift shops
– and even close to the barber shop and shoe-shine stand. If only I could
afford one of those white condos up on the hill that look like a slice of Santorini.
3.Click here for Saratoga entries and results.
get and respect any argument that this rating is way too low. This is not to
undersell the vibe of the sport’s most savvy crowd at a place that deserves to
be at least as revered as Fenway Park and Lambeau Field. In addition to hosting
the best, most high-quality meet in the country, Saratoga is like an old
scrapbook where memories are stored even while they are being made. This does
not even take into account the appealing drumbeat of a town that makes every
waking hour worth savoring.
Is there a better backdrop in America? The view of the track is as good as the
view of the San Gabriel Mountains. This is one place where it is fun to hang out
from sunrise to sunset, what with Clockers’ Corner being a great place for a breakfast
schmooze. The downhill turf course with American racing’s only right-hand turn is
an absolute treasure. If only the quality of racing were not going in the wrong
A one-hour train ride north from Paris leads to this obscure little track with
the Tudor-style clubhouse and some competitive local racing. Think of Los
Alamitos with a Euro flair. Seven years ago this was where I got to spend a
half-hour with trainer Criquette Head-Maarek, who was there to race some
entry-level horses the week of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. A history aside:
Compiègne is the town on the Oise River where the armistice was signed in a
railcar in 1918 to end World War I.
Rolling hills covered by Kentucky bluegrass and homegrown horses are where
Messrs. Headley and Beard decided to drop in a racetrack in 1936. The quality
of racing in April and October is terrific. So is the whole scene. From the
spacious, fan-friendly paddock to the bread pudding in the tastefully appointed
grandstand to the big-money farms nearby, Keeneland is paradise for horses and
The 152-year-old track down by the Jersey Shore is stubbornly old-fashioned,
save the weekend invasion of food trucks. Management always seems to maintain a
fresh coat of paint and all the light bulbs on the old toteboard. Without bread
crumbs, it can be difficult to navigate the 76-year-old grandstand. There
never seems to be an elevator where it should be, and the alternative huffing
and puffing in the stairwells can be a cardiac challenge. The reward for that
hard work is a view from a parterre. It is hard not to like a place that still
features parterres. Oh, yes. Monmouth has the best backside track kitchen in
The royal meeting still is on my to-do list, but I have been there in the fall for
some British Champion Stakes. The racecourse is more than 300 years old, predating
the railroad that drops off fans coming in from London for a half-mile, tree-lined
walk to the historic entrance. The cards full of really good horses are by
themselves worth the price of admission – and hopefully a punt or two. The
current grandstand that is only 16 years old looks a little too modern, but the
trade-off is the utmost in space and convenience – and no shortage of competing
bookmakers. By the way, this is where in 2016 I stood close enough to Her Majesty to remove the hat from her head. Let the record show I resisted.
With all due respect to the stables at Saratoga and Keeneland, this really is
horse heaven. Next to the parking lot, two old steeplechase horses live in
barns at the entrance to serve as greeters. The rest of the enormous complex is
set in a forest that surrounds the racetrack. Workouts happen in the middle of
a huge meadow through which observers must hike in boots to watch. Then again,
horses come before humans. Races happen in front of the majestic Grandes Écuries,
stables that have been converted to an equine museum.
This is as much about the town of Hot Springs, Ark., as it is about the track
itself. The annual meet defies harsh winters in a berg that swells in
population on big race days. The track, hotel and casino were plunked onto Main
Street U.S.A., so Oaklawn is The Scene in the picturesque Ouachita Mountains. Big
purses and standout horses more than make up for the lack of turf racing. So do
the people who turn out by the tens of thousands to defy anyone who would dare
to declare racing is dead.
When I lived in New York and then Las Vegas, longtime Kentucky writer-turned-publicist
Jennie Rees practically begged me to show up one year. Now that it is just down
the road, I wish I had come sooner. Remember the polo scene from “Pretty Woman”?
That is what this place in the Kentucky-Tennessee notch feels like. With huge
purses, there is no better turf racing in the country when measured on a day-by-day
basis. If only it were open for more than just seven days a year.
This paean to NASDAQ and big-time real estate has gotten awfully big for its
britches for all but three days a year. But oh, those three days. There is no
better American scene in any sport than the Kentucky Derby. Oaks day may be
second best. The ill-named Thurby (wouldn’t Derbsday be better?) is getting
there quickly. Regardless of the corporate image, there is no denying the
feeling of historic significance just strolling the grounds of what truly is
the home office for racing.
I never take it for granted when walking around the expansive backside that
takes me back to nature. The endlessly chirping birds provides a symphony that
makes it easy to forget Manhattan is less than an hour away by train – and less
than seven hours on the Long Island Expressway. Belmont Park offers a lot of
good racing in the unique setting of a 1 1/2-mile main track. As long as I
live, the memory of being at American Pharoah’s Triple Crown triumph in 2015 will
be as indelible as watching TV with my dad when Secretariat outran daylight on
the same track in 1973.
Tampa Bay Downs.
Call it Monmouth Park South. It feels a lot like that. Unlike Gulfstream Park,
which caters to everyone but the horseplayer, the Oldsmar, Fla., track is all
about old-school racing. From the betting windows to the food and drink venues
to the relaxed setup of the seating, Tampa Bay Downs feels inviting to everyone
from the upper crust to railbirds.
Talk about punching above its weight. The track at the Alameda County Fairgrounds
in Northern California is easy to get to from the Bernal Avenue exit off I-680.
The grandstand is functional if not splashy. The betting windows and the beers are
never far away. To flip over all the cards, this was one of the first tracks I
covered when I was in my salad days in the ’80s at the Tracy Press.
Chalk this one up to personal nostalgia.
offer honorable mention to Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Horseshoe Indianapolis,
San Isidro in Argentina, Turffontein in South Africa and even Aqueduct, whose
good bones have seen better days.
this list lacks places I have never been but might well enjoy. Big tracks in
Japan that I crave are conspicuous by their absence.
I could identify the track that I considered the worst I ever experienced. But
what is the old saying? If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at
Miserable Experience, Yes. Destination Again? No.