Once Scandalous, Horse Racing on Sundays No Longer Taboo

Pop Culture
Racing fans relax for a day of horse racing at Santa Anita Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

When Dr. Charles Strub founded Santa Anita Park in 1934, he promised the skeptical community that he would never hold horse races on a Sunday. For the next 40 years, that promise became an unwritten rule followed by all of the tracks in California. So much so, in fact, that the California Horse Racing Board began enforcing the tradition by not issuing race dates to any tracks on Sundays.

Around the country, other tracks had battled with their respective communities about racing on Sundays. Many tracks followed the same practice as California. In other states, it was explicitly against the law, part of the deal to legalize pari-mutuel gambling. In places like New Mexico, where horses were racing on Sundays by the 1950s, the clergy organized to fight it. But in California business was good, and there never was any need to open the track on Sundays … at least until the 1970s.

It was a record year in 1971 for Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, but in 1972 some upstarts sought to hold horse racing at Ontario Motor Speedway on Sundays. More competition was creeping up across the border, where Californians were crossing into Mexico to attend the races at Agua Caliente on Sundays.

The track owners went to the California Horse Racing Board and requested Sunday race dates for the 1973 meet, and the board voted unanimously to grant them, despite hundreds of citizens (many from the Church of Latter Day Saints) speaking out at the meeting against it. The move was so scandalous, the Acadia City Council, where Santa Anita is located, explored whether or not the city itself had the authority to ban Sunday racing.

Now closed, Hollywood Park was a popular Sunday destination. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Hollywood Park poured fuel on the fire by holding racing on Easter Sunday. Even some of the horsemen who supported Sunday racing were incensed by this move. One trainer speaking to the Long Beach Independent said: “I’ve been in horse racing more than 20 years, and I consider Easter Sunday the holiest of holy days. It’s a day that shouldn’t be disgraced by people going to the track and betting. They can even go to the racetrack and bet on Christmas, for all I’m concerned, but not on Easter Sunday.”

When another prominent horseman was asked what kind of crowd he expected the track would get on Easter, he replied: “I have no idea how many heathens and athiests there are in California.”

But the experiment worked. There were more than 40,000 patrons at Hollywood Park, an increase from Saturday. What’s more, most of the fans who came were new to the track. The tellers were innundated with questions from greenhorns who didn’t know how to bet. And there was a noticable increase in families at the track, with many people bringing their children to watch their first live horse race.

The industry declared Sunday racing, including on Easter, a success — both for the bottom line and for the good of the sport.

Over the next several years, more locales followed suit, each time fighting a tooth-and-nail battle to open up racing on Sundays, when it previously had been banned. But over time, the opposition softened.

By 1986, when Florida sought to overturn their prohibition on Sunday races, the opponents were not the churches, it was the National Football League, worried that people going to the track on Sunday would hurt the attendance at Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.

Perhaps the best argument for horse racing on Sundays was this one, offered by a painter named Jack Falls who was interviewed at the track one Sunday by the San Bernadino County Sun during that 1973 season: “The Lord says you’re supposed to rest on the seventh day ... and I can’t think of a better place to rest than Hollywood Park.”

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!