They call Santa Anita Park “the Great Race Place,” and they’re not lying: A Left Coast answer to Churchill Downs, the Los Angeles-area track is easily the finest large-capacity horse-racing venue west of the Mississippi, if not the entire United States, and it opens for the season on Dec. 26.
Set against the picturesque San Gabriel Mountains, which are typically topped by a marine layer or smog (depending on your meteorological outlook), Santa Anita is set in the true horse town of Arcadia, Calif., which, while near L.A., feels a world away, with its shabby-chic Route 66 architecture and devotion to the sport of kings. And now that Hollywood Park has been (criminally) shuttered, it no longer faces much competition for the local horseplayer’s dollar.
Since its inception in 1934, Santa Anita has hosted some of the sport’s great jockeys, including Willie Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr., Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, and George “The Iceman” Woolf, who was one of Seabiscuit’s regular riders before a racing accident at Santa Anita on Jan. 3, 1946, led to his death. In the Oscar-nominated movie “Seabiscuit,” Woolf was portrayed by Stevens, and much of the film was shot at Santa Anita. Both Woolf and Seabiscuit are immortalized with statues at the track, which was pivotal in both of their majestic careers.
Within the grandstand of Santa Anita, there’s a regal VIP area with sky-high ceilings called the Chandelier Room. The venue regularly plays host to celebrities — Martin Sheen, Billy Baldwin, Anjelica Houston, Joe Torre, John Elway, Wes Welker (who owns racehorses), Rob Dyrdek, Danny Masterson, and Jaleel “Urkel” White, to name a few.
And then there’s Jeff Goldblum.
The delightfully eccentric actor did not settle for being a mere guest in the Chandelier Room. Instead, Goldblum was booked as the musical entertainment. Doesn’t that just bring a smile to your face? If any one anecdote captures the vibe of Santa Anita — hip, sunny, self-satisfied — it’s this one. The track, a well-preserved palace drenched in yellows and greens, has floors that sparkle; if you’re looking for evidence that the sport’s live product is a decrepit husk of its former self, this isn’t the place to find it.
Nor is it the place to find dudes in dark suits puffing on cigars (head to Belmont for that). Rather, on any given Saturday, gents are apt to wear cream blazers and pearl-snapped shirts with indie-rock beards, straw fedoras and Elvis Costello shades. As for the ladies, well, it’s Southern California — they can show up in Glad bags and look fantastic, but are likelier to arrive in bright, sleeveless dresses and playfully gaudy hats.
On the gastronomical front, only in California will you find grandstand noodle and juice bars, and the Turf Terrace reuben is top-notch. On Breeders’ Cup weekend, food trucks line the infield, augmented by bouncy houses and other family-friendly fodder. And breakfast at Clockers’ Corner is not to be missed. Open to the public around sunrise each day, it’s where diners can watch horses loosen up while wolfing down scrambled eggs and O.J. alongside some of the sport's biggest luminaries. On any given morning, you can find star jockeys Victor Espinoza, Mike Smith, Flavien Prat, Joe Talamo, and Rafael Bejarano hanging out between workouts.
When to Go
The caliber of racing at Santa Anita is unparalleled out west, with an epic meet that lasts from just after Christmas through the end of June — save for a week off to separate the winter/spring docket from the spring/summer proceedings. It also boasts a short fall meet which runs from late September through October or early November, at which point the track frequently plays host to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Opening day typically features the Malibu Stakes, a Grade 1 tweener (seven furlongs) for 3-year-olds. But the shiniest showcase for horses of that age is April’s Santa Anita Derby, a race which can make or break a promising colt’s Kentucky Derby prospects.
Santa Anita boasts a unique auxiliary turf course in which the horses exit a starting gate that sends them on a slight decline before entering the flat main track. Also peculiar: a 1 3/4 mile turf race, which Santa Anita has in the San Juan Capistrano Stakes, run each spring. Highlights of the winter meet are the Sunshine Millions, a day’s worth of high-stakes races that are restricted to California-breds, and the Santa Anita Handicap, a premier Grade 1 for older horses, while meet’s end brings the Gold Cup, whose winner automatically qualifies for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The fall meet features several such Breeders' Cup qualifiers (five on the same Saturday in late September), capped by the Santa Anita Sprint Championship in early October.
Where to Eat
It requires no advanced degree to ascertain that a place called The Derby might have a strong connection to horse racing. And if the name itself doesn’t seal it, the lawn jockeys flanking the front walkway will.
The legendary Santa Anita rider George Woolf purchased The Derby, located on the opposite side of downtown Arcadia from the track, in 1938, and set about molding it into a horseplayer’s home away from the homestretch. Dimly lit, the loungey space is classy without feeling stuffy. The walls are adorned with vintage horse racing memorabilia, as framed cartoons of notable horsemen hang above the bar, and the red vinyl booths are high-backed and cozy.
A few hours before post time on a Friday afternoon, a regal old woman was overheard complimenting the riesling, while a bellied-up regular pored through past performances while nursing a Scotch on the rocks. At the far side of the bar, a younger man ordered The Mike Smith—a juicy cut of hangar steak drenched in peppercorn sauce, served alongside Cajun shrimp and a pillowy boat of mashed potatoes—off a section of the menu labeled “Seabiscuit’s Favorites” and sucked down a Manhattan. It was chilled to perfection; the Iceman would most certainly approve.
For early-bird fare, Huntington Drive boasts a Denny’s with a giant windmill on its roof, but locals flock to Rod’s Grill, a no-frills formica diner with a jagged-rock exterior, watery coffee, and fabulous plates of chorizo and eggs. Adding to the main drag’s nostalgic vibe is Monarch Donuts, which serves its holed carbs out of a lone window. The complete lack of seating beckons patrons to walk across the street to chow down in the sprawling splendor of Arcadia Community Park, where tranquil bands of Tai Chi practitioners share acreage with co-ed softballers, lawn bowlers, swing sets, and swimmers.
Where to Drink
On the other side of a trestle from The Derby is a windowless building with a peculiar sign out front that reads Drinkers Hall of Fame. Is it a museum? A bar? It’s both, really.
Through the intimidating front doorway — there’s a separate rear entrance, where the establishment’s full name, Miss Holly’s Drinkers Hall of Fame, is spelled out — is a small corridor with horse schwag on the wall. Pass through it, and you’re greeted by a waft of cigarette smoke and Bob Seger on the jukebox. The long bar is peppered with congenial, middle-aged regulars, many of whom flirt good-naturedly with the bartender, Janelle. Paintings of naked women grace the walls, and there’s baseball on TV. And the longer you stay, the cheaper the drinks seem to get.
A stone’s throw down Huntington Drive on the other side of the road are two places to see live music: the Arcadia Blues Club (stylistically self-evident) and The First Cabin, which trades mainly in classic rock and proudly displays its opening time — 6 a.m. — on its brick exterior.
Seeing as Santa Anita attracts the finest riders and trainers in the western United States, there’s no shortage of human talent behind the horses. Savvy bettors will perk up at the site of Joe Talamo, Rafael Bejarano, Corey Nakatani, Martin Garcia, or Tyler Baze aboard a horse, as they will for nationally renowned trainers like Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, Jerry Hollendorfer, and John Sadler.
As the crow flies, the Burbank airport is closer to the track, but if you’re patient and adventurous enough to forego a rental car and take public transportation, the Flyaway bus from LAX will get you to Union Station, at which point a transfer to the 79 local will take you through several Huntington Drive suburbs until you arrive at the track (odds are you’ll bump into some uniformed Santa Anita employees as they board). And if you need to catch a flick or pick up some fresh duds, there’s a massive Westfield Mall with a 16-screen AMC cinema next door.
For those interested in more information, check out the Santa Anita media guide, an indispensable resource for those who want to dig a lot deeper.