Before it was known as a home for Hollywood decadence, Silicone Valley cash, and hippie consciousness, California was the last gasp of America’s Wild West. As late as the 1930s, it was still viewed as a low-class upstart in American racing.
Almost a century later, California’s spectacular success as a home to racetracks and as a breeding and training location has cemented it as one of the world’s premier areas for Thoroughbred racing. The story of California Thoroughbred racing is the story of America.
California Horse Racing
California’s landmass’s immensity means that it offers a microcosm of the state of all of Thoroughbred racing. It’s home to glamorous, high money stakes races with famous, wealthy owners, as well as grooms, jockeys, and agricultural workers barely scraping by who stay in their work because they love the sport. California exhibits the United States’ resourcefulness in its ability to spring from a snubbed portion of the market to one of its leading lights.
Home to large tracks and small, family-run breeding and agricultural centers, California’s horse racing locales are clustered in two areas in the state. Throughout the state and to the north, near Napa Valley wine country, several agricultural centers send quality racers to tracks across the world. Some yearly fairs hold temporary meets, which serve as significant betting events to gamblers in faraway states. These include the Big Fresno Fair, the Alameda County Fairgrounds, and a handful of others. Other tracks host quarter horse, Arabian, and harness racing. California is the only state west of the Mississippi River to feature harness racing.
Located in southern California is a group of racing facilities that hold rotating racing dates for Thoroughbreds. These include Santa Anita Park, Golden Gate Fields, and the enduring symbol of Hollywood’s golden age, Del Mar.
California’s breeding has quickly become legendary. Great horses born in the state include California Chrome, Bertrando, Lava Man, Tiznow, and Indian Charlie. These champions have helped to shape the sport and expand the breed.
California Gambling Laws
Many of California’s gambling laws represent a political tug of war between large cities, which push for a great deal of government control, and more rural, agricultural operators who prefer to be left alone. Gambling is caught in the middle as environmental activists, animal rights protestors, and financially strapped cities fight out the governance of horse racing, gaming, off-track betting, and video slots.
Unlike many states struggling to prop up the Thoroughbred industry and various tracks, sports betting, unless on horse racing, is not legal in California. Slot machines are illegal, as are many other games of chance. However, California is home to many casinos— 62 of them, at last count. These are all located on tribal land, which is exempt from the state gambling ban.
Regulated at the state level, card rooms, bingo, and a state-run lottery are also permitted. Even then, those under the age of 21 are not allowed to participate in gaming in the casinos. They are not allowed to remain standing in gaming areas, even if accompanied by a parent or guardian.
The California Horse Racing Law governs horse racing in California. In 2019, the state, reacting to a mysterious and alarming spike in horse deaths at Santa Anita, passed a law that permits the California Horse Racing Board to suspend racing without notifying the public first. This approach speeds the process of shutting down operations in the state. The passage of this law was designed to bypass Santa Anita’s ability to turn down the California Horse Racing Board
History of California Horse Racing
As in Florida, California’s modern Thoroughbred racing era began in the early part of the 20th century when pari-mutual gambling became legal at the state level. True to its strong history of fair racing, the first legal gambling on racing took place at the San Joaquin Fair in Stockton. California is now the only state with a fair meet circuit. Each summer, seven areas in the northern part of the state host short term meets for quarter horses and Thoroughbreds.
Other small tracks sprang up, with such significant facilities as Santa Anita, Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Golden Gate Fields, all joining the ranks by the mid-1930s. During World War II, the tracks were used for military purposes. When President Franklin Roosevelt ordered Japanese Americans internment after the 1942 attack on Pearl Harbor, Santa Anita was used as a civilian assembly center, where arrestees were held after removal from their homes.
Crippled by the general decline of the sport and an overabundance of tracks located in the same area, California racing, as in other states, now battles a general decline. In Los Angeles, Hollywood Park, which once hosted the Breeders’ Cup, closed and is now the site of an NFL stadium. A casino, however, remains at the original location. Other significant facilities fell as well. The racing dates from closed tracks were incorporated into those still open.
Best California Horse Racing Tracks
California’s remaining Thoroughbred racing tracks are modern powerhouses of premiere racing. Some, like Santa Anita, are teetering, having recently become smaller in size. Santa Anita was almost closed in 2006 to make room for a tourist and mall site.
The extremely high price of land and real estate in California, particularly in the southern end of the state, along with its heavy taxes and regulations, make it extremely difficult for such facilities to remain solvent.
Anyone who has read Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit or seen the movie version is familiar with the importance of Santa Anita and its annual Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, known in the industry as “The Big Cap.” It’s also home to the Grade I Santa Anita Derby and the January Sunshine Millions, which rotates on a yearly basis with Gulfstream Park in Florida. It has hosted the Breeders’ Cup a record ten times to date. Standardbred racing has also taken place there.
Its dirt track is a mile long. On the inside of its dirt track is a hillside turf course, which can support races of 1 ¾ quarter miles. Santa Anita’s turf course is unusual in that it crosses the dirt track. In response to a California state law, Santa Anita’s dirt course was synthetic. Its Art Deco grandstand can hold 26,000 fans, and its infield offers picnic tables and shady trees.
Santa Anita opened in 1933 and is located in Arcadia, which is just outside Los Angeles. It was the first formal, non-fair racetrack in California. Two years later, the first Santa Anita Handicap was run, offering a then-astonishing purse of $100,000. Film stars frequented the grandstand, and singers Bing Crosby and Al Jolson were even stakeholders. Others owned racehorses or small stables headquartered at Santa Anita. Its proximity to Hollywood studios meant that it was often featured in films.
The track was renovated in the 1960s and hosted the equestrian events of the 1984 Summer Olympics. However, the legalization of off-track betting began to cut into the track’s attendance. Picking up the spring dates of Hollywood Park began to better its finances.
Racing was closed indefinitely in 2019 when several horses died during Santa Anita’s winter meet. The bulk of the deaths, 37 in all, took place on the turf track, with seven happening on the dirt. Live racing began again in March of 2020, albeit without fans.
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, “Where the Surf Meets the Turf,” opened in 1934. Appropriately enough for its Hollywood roots, it was initially founded by song and screen star Bing Crosby in partnership with stockbroker William A. Quigley. Seabiscuit raced here, as did Bill Shoemaker, and it was used as a site to manufacture B17 bomber parts during World War II.
Del Mar’s grandstand was entirely demolished and rebuilt in the 1990s. In the next decade, Del Mar led the industry’s way of using digital media to capture younger fans. Its turf course was widened in 2014 and its main track updated with El Segundo Sand in 2015. The Breeders’ Cup came to Del Mar for the first time in 2017.
It is considered a glamorous, upscale locale, and Bing Crosby still sings the fans home with “Where the Surf Meets the Turf” at the close of racing each evening. As at other tracks, Del Mar’s 2020 meets run without fans.
Golden Gate Fields
Opened in 1941, Golden Gate Fields is the home of live racing in the Berkley-San Francisco Bay area. It holds a one-mile track which was formerly dirt and is now synthetic. A seven-furlong turf course is featured as well. The grandstand of Golden Gate Fields can accommodate 8,000 fans.
During World War II, Golden Gate Fields was used by the Navy for landing craft storage. It has since seen the likes of such champions as Citation, Noor, and Silky Sullivan. Golden Gate offers two Grade III races and several ungraded events. Its most famous jockey is Russell Baze.
Los Alamitos is a surprisingly recent partner in California Thoroughbred racing. Opened in 1951 as a home to only quarter horse action, it became part of the sport only within the last decade. When Hollywood Park closed in 2014, Los Alamitos took steps to pick up its racing dates. Its track was enlarged to cover a mile, and its leadership snagged legendary trainer Art Sherman to call it his home. Los Alamitos is located about 20 miles from Los Angeles.
In 2019, Los Alamitos held the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes. It also hosted the Grade II Great Lady M. Stakes and the Los Alamitos Futurity. The Los Alamitos Derby and Bayakoa Stakes, both Grade III races, also took place at the “new” track.
California Horse Racing Season
Santa Anita runs three seasons: in the early fall, throughout the winter, and into the spring. It is home to a staggering amount of Grade I races in addition to the Santa Anita Derby and Santa Anita Handicap. These include the American Pharoah Stakes, the Malibu Stakes, and the Gold Cup. Grade II and Grade III races are also a long list and have the Santa Anita Oaks, the Golidkova Stakes, and the American Stakes.
Del Mar runs from July to September. A fall meet, which takes place from November through early December, was added after the closure of Hollywood Park. Grade I stakes include the Bing Crosby Stakes, the Del Mar Oaks, the Del Mar Futurity, and the Pacific Classic. Del Mar also hosts several Grade II stakes, such as the Seabiscuit Handicap, the Del Mar Derby, and the Hollywood Turf Cup Stakes. Grade III races include the Cecil B. DeMille Stakes, the La Jolla Handicap, and the Green Flash Handicap. Several other ungraded stakes are run here as well.
Golden Gate Fields is home to the Grade III Berkley Handicap, the El Camino Real Derby, and the San Francisco Mile Stakes. Its racing dates are generally early January through mid-June. A second, shorter meet takes place from mid-August through mid-September.
Los Alamitos holds a brief Thoroughbred racing season in December. An even shorter one takes place the last week in June.
Overall Thoughts on California Horse Racing
California horse racing is an indispensable part of the sport. Its homebreds are fast, and its tracks are young icons. The entire range of Thoroughbred racing can be found in the state, and it’s just getting started.