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 Tuesday, June 21, and marquee horse racing events are just around the corner, leading off with an extended Independence Day holiday weekend racing that features two Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” preps: the Stephen Foster Stakes at Churchill Downs and the Princess Rooney Stakes at Gulfstream Park, both on July 2.

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-ticket excitement and elite Thoroughbred racing all the way through Labor Day. And after a couple of summers when fans were either prohibited from attending live racing or saw attendance capped at many tracks, the opportunity to get back to one of our true national pastimes – enjoying the majesty of Thoroughbred racing in person, amongst friends and family – is most welcome.

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 nearly 160 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 14 and reaches its zenith with the Runhappy Travers Stakes on Aug. 27, has to be high on the list. This year’s meet has something new that is sure to appeal to fans of all ages: Saratoga will offer a Breakfast and Breeding Farm tour package every Friday of the meet that includes a buffet breakfast and a round-trip trolley ride to Old Tavern Farm where a walking tour will be held, plus admission to that day’s races. –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 Stakes is the biggest race on Monmouth’s summer schedule – this year's 55th running will be on July 23 – 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 (this year’s summer meet features the highest purse structure in track history). I can imagine it now, and I can’t wait for opening day on July 22. –Christina Moore


Top Races for Older Horses

This summer features four Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” races for the Longines Classic, with the winner of each race receiving an automatic berth into the $6-million Classic Nov. 5 at Keeneland.

The older male division starts to heat up on Saturday, July 2, when Churchill Downs hosts the Grade 2 Stephen Foster Stakes (as mentioned above). The 1 ⅛-mile race will be headlined by Mandaloun, last year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and TVG.com Haskell Stakes winner. He’s making his first start since finishing ninth in the Saudi Cup in late February.

Saratoga will host two “Win and You’re In” races for the Classic. The historic Whitney Stakes will take place on Aug. 6, while the Jockey Club Gold Cup is scheduled for Sept. 3.

A few weeks ago, Flightline dominated in the Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap and further established himself as the star of his division. He won by six lengths in yet another spectacular performance to improve his career record to 4-for-4. The talented 4-year-old colt is likely to resurface next at Del Mar, potentially in the TVG Pacific Classic on Sept. 3. That race also offers the winner a spot in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic. –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 Churchill Downs is scheduled to host four turf stakes races on Aug. 13 that were formerly held at Arlington Park. 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 23 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 seven 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’s group is similarly wide open – maybe even more so than ’16 and ’17. When an 80.80-1 horse upsets the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, it’s bound to be the case. The months ahead will bring clarity, though. We’ll see if Rich Strike truly was a one-race wonder and whether Mo Donegal’s fulfillment of his potential in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets was a harbinger of even better races to come. And don’t forget about Preakness Stakes winner Early Voting, Derby and Preakness runner-up Epicenter, and the incredibly talented Jack Christopher, who looks set to stretch out to two turns after obliterating his opponents in the Pat Day Mile Presented by LG & E and KU and the Woody Stephens Stakes Presented by Mohegan Sun. To add to the excitement, 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


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 and is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this summer. Ellis, which opens on July 8, 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 (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, while 2019 Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress turned heads during the 2018 Ellis meet with a 13 ½-length stakes victory. And reigning Horse of the Year Knicks Go got it all started four summers ago when he won his career debut at the Pea Patch on Independence Day 2018.–Patrick Reed

newsletter sign-up

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