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 Sunday, June 20, and big horse racing events are just around the corner, leading off with Independence Day weekend racing at Belmont Park and elsewhere on July 3-4.

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. And after a year when fans were largely prohibited from attending live racing, the eagerness to get back to one of our true national pastimes – enjoying the majesty of Thoroughbred racing in person, amongst friends and family – is palpable.

Tapping into that spirit, here are some of team ABR's favorite racetracks, race days, and rituals that make this season great. Editor's note: This feature was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.


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 15 and reaches its zenith with the Runhappy Travers Stakes on Aug. 28, has to be high on the list. The track recently announced that fans will be welcomed back this summer at 100 percent capacity. –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 54th running will be on July 17 – 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 16 (fans will be allowed back at 100 percent of seated capacity). Del Mar will also host the 38thBreeders’ Cup World Championships later this year, on Nov. 5-6, which will make their “Win and You’re In” qualifying prep races such as the TVG Pacific Classic on Aug. 21 even more important. –Christina Moore


Top Races for Older Horses

This summer will feature plenty of exciting races for older horses on the road to the World Championships. This spring saw several top contenders for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic emerge in races such as the Hollywood Gold Cup (Country Grammer), Alysheba Stakes Presented by Sentient Jet (Maxfield) and the Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Mile (Silver State).

On the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff side, Letruska has won three graded stakes this year, most recently the Ogden Phipps Handicap. Swiss Skydiver, who beat males in the Preakness Stakes last year, also figures to be a factor in the division.

The first Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race for the Longines Classic takes place on June 26, when Churchill Downs hosts the Stephen Foster Stakes. On the same card, Churchill will hold the Fleur de Lis Stakes, a “Win and You’re In” for the Longines Distaff. Other Challenge Series qualifying races for the Classic include the Suburban Stakes at Belmont Park on July 3, the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 7, the TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 21 (see above), and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Saratoga on Sept. 4 over Labor Day weekend. –John Piassek


Turf Racing Takes Center Stage

Horses race on the Colonial Downs turf course in 2019. (Coady Photography)

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 will hold some rich turf stakes races in August, possibly for the last time. Still, there are so many other tracks that you can also visit to enjoy it. 

Over at Monmouth Park, there’s no shortage of spectacular grass races, highlighted by the United Nations Stakes, which is on July 17 on the Haskell Invitational undercard. Also, I’m excited about turf racing at Colonial Downs, which reopened in summer 2019. It’s back and 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 six 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 2018 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 even though he made his last career start in the Belmont Stakes.

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 (we'll set 2020 aside as a COVID-19 aberration that no one wants repeated). This year, despite Essential Quality's continued excellence, the division is still up for grabs. Top contenders such as Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve runner-up (and potentially elevated winner) Mandaloun, Preakness Stakes winner Rombauer, and the burgeoning fan favorite Hot Rod Charlie (who seems destined to grab his own marquee Grade 1 sooner or later) are all plotting ambitious campaigns. And the radar’s out searching for up-and-coming 3-year-olds who may just develop at the right time to make noise in the Haskell, Travers, and other big races as summer kicks into high gear. –Patrick Reed


History in the Making

Steve Asmussen (Eclipse Sportswire)

Racing fans will be on milestone watch this summer, as Steve Asmussen closes in on the all-time record for most wins by a trainer in North America. As of June 19, Asmussen has 9,384 wins, 61 shy of the late Dale Baird's mark of 9,445.

Asmussen won his first race as a trainer in 1986 at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. Over his 35-plus year career, he's saddled all-time greats such as Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, and Gun Runner. He's been the leading North American trainer by wins ten times, and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2016. Right now, he's on pace to break the record in late August or early September – right around the time some of his top-rank 2-year-olds are emerging at the Spa. –John Piassek


The Country Charms of Ellis Park

Racing at the Pea Patch. (Eclipse Sportswire)

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 27, 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 (there will be 100 percent capacity this summer, and attendance is free). The quality of the racing product has taken a notable upturn, too.

Over the past 10 years or so, 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 2019 Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress turned heads during the 2018 Ellis meet with a 13 ½-length stakes victory. And last summer, eventual Preakness runner-up Midnight Bourbon romped in an Ellis maiden prior to an active campaign through the winter and spring for Steve Asmussen. –Patrick Reed

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