My racetrack wish list

With the snow beginning to melt and warm weather slowly starting to find its way into the forecast, my itch to hit the road is beginning to return once again.

Plans are in the works for a trip to Keeneland Race Course in April, so that will ease my road trip jones for the immediate future. However, one of my goals for 2010 is to add some length to the list of tracks I have visited.

Below is a list of ten tracks I would like to cross off my list sometime in the future. Some of them are very plausible to hit in the coming year, while others are more likely to be long-term projects. The tracks range from tiny harness and Quarter Horse bullrings to the host of the last two Breeders’ Cups, so there is plenty of variety. Some of my selections may appear less than ambitious, but there is a reason for each, and any of them would be a huge “get” for my list.

Before we get too deep into this, the premise for this post was lifted from a great post on Equispace. A little while back, Thoroughbred Times News Editor Ed DeRosa also listed some of the tracks he has yet to cross off his impressive list.

The top ten tracks are listed in alphabetical order, followed by some honorable mentions. Let’s have a look…

Ajax Downs
I only became aware of this small Ontario track early last year, but from the sounds of it, I was missing out. Before getting approved for slots, Ajax Downs was a quirky, little Quarter Horse track that ran for tiny purses and was shaped like a “J”. Cindy Pierson-Dulay of Horse-Races.net described the track as “a 440-yard straightaway ending in a sharp right hand turn for the runout.” Since the slots, the track has remodeled into a five furlong oval and boosted its purse structure enough to draw the attention of some Mount Pleasant Meadows-based horsemen. If anything else, the track’s website is among the most impressive and comprehensive I have seen from a track of any size.

Bluegrass Downs
Where, you ask? In a past life, the Paducah, Kentucky track was a popular destination for horses and people from Mount Pleasant Meadows. Today, Bluegrass Downs is a standardbred-exclusive track. Harness racing isn’t exactly my bag, but from the description of racetrack bucket-lister McChump, the track’s too-small-for-its-own-good atmosphere is right up my alley.

The remaining tracks on my wish list can be found behind the jump. Did your home track make the list? Click the link below to find out.

Canterbury Park
Very few tracks in today’s market can truthfully carry labels like “progressive” or “forward thinking”. From my impression of the place, Canterbury Park seems like one of those tracks. Almost to the number, everyone I have talked to who has visited or trained at the track has raved about the place and the positive vibe it gives off. The track seems to be willing to try new things, and is being rewarded with rising attendance figures in a nationally sagging industry. Furthermore, for the relative size of the track, Canterbury appears to have an unusually high number of intelligent racing minds who know how to use their online presence (See:Ted Grevelis and David Miller). Put it all together, and it sounds like a place I ought to be.

Hialeah Park
For a while there, it looked like Hialeah Park was going to be part of the ever-growing list of tracks I would never get the opportunity to visit. However, its 2009 rebirth as a Quarter Horse track gives me a chance, for the time being, to take in one of the sport’s historic venues while rooting for local connections who made the voyage to Florida. Plus, I might luck out and get to hear a race call from my favorite up-and-coming announcer, Pete Aiello.

Hoosier Park
Truth be told, I have already visited Hoosier Park. However, it was off-season, so I’m not counting it. As I looked out at the track from the grandstand, I realized the Anderson, Indiana oval bears a striking resemblance to Great Lakes Downs if it were pinched at the sides and stretched out a bit. Though it would be a nice, and nearby, track to cross off the list, the real appeal of going there would be to relive a small part of the GLD experience. The easily accessible casino doesn’t hurt, either.

Kentucky Downs
If I am anything, I am a completist. If a collectible comes in a set, I probably won’t rest until the last item item is in my possession. Pokemon? Gotta catch ’em all? Yeah, I was all over that. For that same reason, Kentucky Downs makes the list. In 2008 alone, I managed to visit every pari-mutuel Thoroughbred racetrack Kentucky had to offer except for the one on the Tennessee border. It was my goal to tag the final base by the end of that year, but my heavy course schedule and the track’s incredibly short meet (it looks like they’re hosting four days in 2010) made it impossible to pull off. From the photos on the website, the grounds look lush and green to the point of rivaling a golf course. If they serve a decent cheeseburger, this track could very easily become an annual destination.

Los Alamitos Race Course
Admittedly, I am not a huge Quarter Horse guy. Sure, I have a serviceable knowledge of the sprinters in Michigan and the surrounding states, but when it comes to bloodlines or the national scene, it gets pretty hit or miss. That said, I enjoy watching the races at the California track late nights on TVG.  Simply judging by how hard it looks like the horses are running on the TV screen, one can only imagine what watching the nation’s top Quarter Horses must feel like in person. The sprinkling of 4 1/2 furlong Thoroughbred races for a $3,500 claiming tag would keep me from getting too homesick.

Presque Isle Downs
A few years ago, Thoroughbred Times named Presque Isle Downs the best racino in North America, a fact the track will recite to anyone within earshot. The boosted purses from that award-winning casino have drawn a number of Michigan horsemen, so I am intrigued to see if the allure of the place is simply the dollar signs or if there is something more. Also, it would be interesting to get an up-close look at the track’s Tapeta surface, which received positive reviews from many of the people I have spoken to who have raced there.

Santa Anita Park
My desire to visit Santa Anita is strongly influenced by pure, red-blooded, American marketing. Clearly, the track hosts high quality racing, but the panning shots of the picturesque mountain range that overlooks the track in the reality show “Jockeys” and coverage of the Breeders Cup make it a sight I want to see with my own two eyes.

Saratoga Race Course
The three major boutique tracks in North America are Keeneland Race Course, Saratoga Race Course, and Del Mar Race Track. These are arguably the three tracks every race fan is supposed to visit before they die. I’ve been to Keeneland and Del Mar just hasn’t sparked my imagination, so that leaves Saratoga. The absolute top of the heap race there, and the culture of the town surrounding the racetrack makes it a priority destination.

Honorable Mentions:
Arlington Park/Hawthorne Race Course (I live close enough to these two tracks where checking them off the list is very do-able. In fact, I have some tickets to Arlington this summer, so that one will happen sooner rather than later), Charles Town Races & Slots (My grandpa loved playing this track. It was also the site of the final two starts of his horse, Royal Charley), Oaklawn Park (One of the major roads to the Kentucky Derby. Lots of great ones get their start there), Sam Houston Race Park (Seems like a fairly small-time track with big-time aspirations. I want to see what all the fuss is about), Suffolk Downs (T.D. Thornton’s “Not by a Long Shot” got me interested),Tampa Bay Downs (Warm weather, popular winter residence of Michigan connections, budding Derby trail. Where do I sign up?), The Red Mile (Been there for the harness races, but not the Quarter Horse weekend), Thistledown (The only Ohio Thoroughbred track I have yet to visit. Also the closest to where I live. I don’t get it either)

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “My racetrack wish list

  1. old time race fan

    Joe,
    Great post. It has always been my dream to see as many race tracks as I can while I am in this world… kind of my “thoroughbred bucket list”.
    Arlington should definitely be on your list. It is beautiful. Tampa Bay and Hialeah are also high on my wish list. I am ashamed to admit but I still have not been to two of the greatest, Santa Anita and Saratoga.
    Keeneland is wonderful with the ivy covered walls and it’s rich history and of course Churchill Downs is like Mecca to any avid fan.
    Of the ones that I have been to, Arlington, Del Mar and Belmont were the prettiest, I’d say.
    Emerald Downs out in Washington is also very scenic with Mount Rainier in the distance.
    While my wife is not too sympathetic to my goals, it did remind me of a funny story. One time when we were in Florida, she joined me for a day at Calder. Not being interested in the horses, she brought along a needlepoint to work on. I’ll never forget, as we both sat in the grandstand, side by side, she working away at her needlepoint and me studying the racing form, another horseplayer came and sat right next to us. He looked over at the two of us and, without saying a word, he just started laughing. It then occurred to me what a weird pair we must have seemed.
    Hats off to you for taking on this great enterprise. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. I’ll look forward to your posts as the year progresses.

  2. ragman

    Maybe you should give some consideration to Monmouth this summer. They’ll be reworking East Coast racing and it’s near the beach. Back from the dead.

    Old time

    Are you old enough to remember thoroughbreds in Toledo and Windsor?

    • wilderness

      “Are you old enough to remember thoroughbreds in Toledo and Windsor?”

      Wish I could recall which year I saw T-Breds at Toledo. Had to be 1969 or 1970. There was a short meet about six weeks long just prior to Detroit opening for T-Breds. seems to me they began racing in February.
      (BTW; many people are unaware there was an earlier track in Maumee that was referred to as Toledo as well. The actual name was Fort Miami Raceway. The last races there were in the early 50’s. I’ve some photo’s from old periodicals if anybody is interested?).

      Windsor had a six week during mid-summer on their tartan-track and the following year, closed the 2nd season meet after a couple of weeks. The horses were pitiful. Had to be the very early 70’s as well.

  3. Let us know when you plan to stop in our neck of the woods…would love to have you do an entire blog post on our little ole track. 😉

  4. Andrea Ritter

    you need to create a global list next, Dubai & Ascot! Saratoga is amazing because the town is small, upscale and builds their culture around the horse racing. I recommend visiting Saratoga for the Fasig Tipton sale if you like the culture, auction experience, quality horses and the celebrities.

  5. Joe,

    Very nice. I can attest to what the other commenter said about Emerald Downs (although I haven’t been there in over a decade).

    I’ve got a couple of bush leaguers I want to cross off my list (I don’t have a list) that are decadent and depraved. Something about small, dilapidated tracks barely hanging on is interesting. And Keeneland/Saratoga/the usual suspects.

  6. mibredclaimer

    Old Time Race Fan,
    Thanks much! I’m pretty psyched abut hitting up Arlington this summer. Getting a little preview on last night’s Undercover Boss only served to get me even more excited.

    I love your story. Hopefully it doesn’t date you too much, but it reminds me of my grandparents spending their afternoons at the Mount Pleasant simulcast. My Grandpa would be going over the programs and chatting up anyone he could grab while my Grandma sat next to him and quietly worked on some sewing or a crossword. That really brought me back.

    Ragman,
    I can’t believe I left off Monmouth. Definitely worthy of an honorable mention. I don’t know if or when I’ll find myself on the East Coast, but it’ll definitely be a priority destination when it happens.

    Sam Houston Race Park,
    I’ll definitely keep you posted. I’m very curious to see what the track has to offer.

    Andrea,
    Dubai and Ascot would definitely be great to visit (I’d like to see the track in Moscow as well), but as an avid road-tripper, it’s kind of hard to drive to those tracks. Someday, when I have “overseas racetrack excursion” money though, it’s on. I’m definitely intrigued by the Saratoga atmosphere. If and when I do go, I intend to spend at least a week there…assuming I can afford the hotel.

    Andrew,
    The smaller tracks are usually my favorites, too. They just have a different way of doing things than the bigger tracks, which leads to the best crazy racetrack stories. I suppose hailing from a small track helps me identify with them a bit more than the bigger ones, too.

  7. old time race fan

    Just to reply back. I have also been to Monmouth once or twice and can attest that it is worthy of making your list. It is close enough that you can smell the ocean.
    I do not recall the Thoroughbreds at either Toledo or Windsor. I did get to see them when they were at Hazel Park’s old bull ring, but I never really cared for that set up. DRC was more my style.

  8. Dash

    Canterbury is a terrific track. It’s so well-maintained, great attention caring for the fans (casual as well as racing fans) and horsemen. Those that run it truly love horse racing, and that shows. You’ll enjoy the trip.

    Speaking as a QH person, you may enjoy the sprinters more than you think when you see the good ones in person. The rush of the horses rumbling down the track isn’t to be missed. If you head to Los Angeles to do a track tour this year, when you hit Los Al, make sure that Freaky is running. He is the world champion, and is an unbelievable horse. Don’t miss the morning workouts while having breakfast at Schwanies at the gap, either.

    You might also add Ruidoso to your list…it ranks with Hialeah as one of the prettiest of tracks, IMO, set up in the mountains of New Mexico.

    Enjoy your blog!

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