What Makes Summer Racing Special?

Events / Travel
Del Mar and Saratoga offer totally immersive track experiences for horse racing fans during the summer. (Eclipse Sportswire (Del Mar) and Penelope P. Miller (Saratoga))

Summer officially kicks off on Friday, June 21, and big horse racing weekends are just around the corner, leading off with Belmont Park’s Stars and Stripes Racing Festival on July 6.

Fans know full well that there are two spectacular race meets drawing near in mid-July, though, and they will anchor a summer calendar that overflows with big-event excitement and elite Thoroughbred racing all the way through Labor Day.

Tapping into that spirit, here are some of team ABR's favorite racetracks, race days, and rituals that make this season great.


Saratoga: An Unparalleled Experience

A Saratoga scene. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Saratoga is the highlight of the summer on the East Coast. Nestled at the foot of the Adirondack Mountains, the Spa (as Saratoga is colloquially known) as been a staple of the sporting set for over 150 years; in fact, the track is the longest continually-operated sporting venue in the United States. A summer day at Saratoga is like nothing else in the entire world: simultaneously thrilling and incredibly relaxing, fans who journey to the Spa are treated to top-notch racing on historic grounds that have seen the likes of Man o’ War, Secretariat, and American Pharoah. It’s a mecca for horse lovers and horseplayers alike, and if we’re talking about what makes summer racing special, Saratoga, which opens on July 11 and reaches its zenith with the Runhappy Travers Stakes on Aug. 24, has to be high on the list. –Penelope Miller


The Haskell and Monmouth Park

A packed Monmouth Park. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)
 

I had never been to Monmouth before I started working at America’s Best Racing; but the second I stepped off of the train and through the track’s gates, I knew I’d found a new obsession. Monmouth Park is all about fun, from the backyard picnic area to the press box. Once you arrive and experience the festive vibe, one thought comes immediately to mind: “OK. Now it feels like summer.” The TVG.com Haskell Invitational is the biggest race on Monmouth’s summer schedule – this year’s 52nd running running will be on July 20, which is the first time it will be run on a Saturday – and if you’ve never been to the Shore’s Greatest Stretch, start planning your maiden voyage now. The Haskell is pure joy; after all, how can you resist a track that plays that New Jersey anthem “Born to Run” as the Haskell horses walk out to the post parade? –Penelope Miller


Seaside Racing at Del Mar

Turf racing at Del Mar. (Eclipse Sportswire)

There’s nothing quite like racing where the turf meets the surf. No matter what track is your “favorite,” walking through the gates of Del Mar and experiencing the Southern California splendor firsthand is undoubtedly a highlight of the summer. Tall palm trees dancing in the beach breeze; the ocean in sight of the grandstand. Relaxing in the sunshine, Del Margarita in hand; watching some of the finest racehorses in the country thunder down the stretch. I can imagine it now, and I can’t wait for opening day on July 17. –Christina Moore


Top Races for Older Horses

As the calendar turns to July, the focus turns to older horses and the race for the Breeders’ Cup, namely the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Some of the biggest dirt races for the division are an annual summer focus at Saratoga and Del Mar: the Whitney Stakes (Aug. 3) and the TVG Pacific Classic (Aug. 17). Both races have been won by legendary horses and both attract competitive fields of the best older horses in training each year, making them can’t-miss events. –Christina Moore


Turf Racing Takes Center Stage

Turf racing at Laurel Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

I’m not sure why, but I have always really enjoyed turf racing more than dirt racing. I’ve had some luck over the years betting on turf races, and in the summer, where inclement weather isn’t as prevalent on the East Coast as it is during the rest of the year, we get to witness some of the best turf racing on the calendar. Sure, you can find high-quality turf races at Saratoga (which I love), there’s some great grass races out at Del Mar, and Arlington International Racecourse has its big Million racecard, but there are so many other tracks that you can also visit to enjoy it. 

For me, I personally love turf racing at Laurel Park in Maryland. Often, you’ll find cards loaded with turf races of 12 or more horses – and those make for excellent betting races. Over at Monmouth Park, there’s no shortage of spectacular grass races, highlighted by the United Nations Stakes, which is on June 22. Also, I’m excited for the summer return of racing at Colonial Downs, where the overwhelming majority of races are on turf. If you’re anywhere near New Kent, Virginia, I’d encourage you to visit the track which is reopening Aug. 8 after being closed down in 2013. It’s back and it should be better than ever. –Dan Tordjman


Who Emerges in the 3-year-old Division?

Some years, the Triple Crown series sets in stone the final standings for the best 3-year-olds in racing, no matter what happens afterward. Recall four summers ago, for instance. By this time in 2015, American Pharoah had already wrapped up his division championship and Horse of the Year as well – even if he did suffer an upset defeat in August at Saratoga, his coronation was a fait accompli, the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland merely a Grand Slam confirmation of what everyone already knew. And last year summoned that 2015 déjà vu feeling. Justify ended his brief but brilliant career by etching his name in the history books next to Pharoah as a Triple Crown winner, and took the glittering seasonal hardware for Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male while other members of his crop such as Good Magic, Catholic Boy, and McKinzie were left to compete for the late summer and fall graded stakes trophies.

But then think of 2016 and 2017. In both of those years, by the start of summer racing fans had just witnessed three different winners of the Triple Crown races and were grappling with complete uncertainty... until Arrogate and West Coast came along, respectively. This year, the division is even more jumbled. Country House, the elevated Kentucky Derby winner, is shelved for the rest of the year. Disqualified Derby first-place finisher Maximum Security was upset last weekend. Mark Casse’s Preakness Stakes winner War of Will is certainly in the mix, although his Belmont Stakes winner Sir Winston will miss the big summer races with an ankle injury. And then there are rising contenders such as Mr. Money and Mucho Gusto (who’d have thought earlier this year he could end up being Bob Baffert’s best 3-year-old?) along with dependable Tacitus to enliven debate about the merits of this year’s crop. And, oh yes - do not, repeat do not, forget about Omaha Beach. All in all, watching this fuzzy picture come into focus should make for a fascinating season ahead, as Richard Eng elaborates on in his latest column.–Patrick Reed


The Country Charms of Ellis Park

Training at Ellis Park. (Jennie Rees photo)

Saratoga rules the summertime East Coast scene, Del Mar the West Coast, and that’s how it is and always will be and should be. But in flyover country, there are many other, smaller tracks with their own unique summer circuit flavor, and one of them is perched on the northern banks of the Ohio River just south of Evansville, Indiana. Known affectionately as “the Pea Patch” due to its soybean infield, Ellis Park has been a mainstay on the Kentucky racing calendar for nearly 100 years. Ellis, which opens on June 30, offers a family-friendly atmosphere with minimal air-conditioned areas and, accordingly, a variety of cold beverages at the ready for purchase at all times. The quality of the racing product has taken a notable upturn in recent years, too.

This decade, Ellis has seen more than its share of talented horses make an appearance – some established stars, and even more stars-to-be. Two-time champion female sprinter Groupie Doll won her first stakes at Ellis in 2011, in the Gardenia Stakes, which is now named after the popular racemare. Runhappy, champion sprinter in 2015, romped in an Ellis allowance that summer immediately prior to his score in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop at the Spa. More recently, 2017 Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee first surfaced when winning two races – including a stakes – at Ellis the summer before his try at the classic. And last year, Hog Creek Hustle (recent winner of the Woody Stephens Stakes) and Everfast (recent runner-up in the Preakness) won their maiden races at Ellis, while 2019 Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress turned heads during the 2018 Ellis meet with a 13 ½-length stakes victory.–Patrick Reed

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