Kids love horses; this we know. We can indulge their fascination with a quick round on the ponies at Griffith Park or a stint at horse camp—or we can think outside the box and remember there are more ways to appreciate horses than sitting on one. How about cheering them on as they run? If hanging out at the track is not part of your world, you may not think horse racing sounds like a family activity, but guess what? It absolutely can be. Not only that, it can be totally free.
There is something satisfyingly old school about a racetrack. Technology changes many things, but thoroughbred horses and their colorfully clad jockeys running around a mile or so of turf is the same as it ever was. Fans of the sport still tend to dress up just a bit (a few wearing hats that could be straight out of My Fair Lady), and the adrenaline rush of cheering a horse and watching it run by vying for first place never gets old.
And it's your horse by a nose!
Santa Anita Park is on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County and the closest spot for LA families to experience horse racing in person. Like many outdoor sports, this one thrives in the SoCal sunshine, and Santa Anita is one of the country's prime race courses, second only to Churchill Downs in popularity. In fact, Santa Anita has hosted the prestigious Breeders' Cup more often than any other track in the country. In short, our local is no second rate track; a trip to Santa Anita is a chance to see horse racing in all its glory.
If this is starting to sound expensive, don't worry. Santa Anita actually offers the chance to experience horse racing without spending a dime, allowing families to pack a picnic, bring some lawn chairs, and take advantage of free infield admission and free parking at Gate 6. The infield area has a playground and picnic tables, and the unique perspective of watching the day's races from inside the circle—in other words the horses will be running around you.
A picnic on the infield is a great way to experience the park with little kids.
If you're ready to spend a little on a special occasion (planning ahead for Mother's or Father's Day, anyone?), the luxurious end of the price range is not as much as you might think. General admission to the facilites on the outer side of the park, with access to seating, restaurants, great views of the action, and closer views of the horses, is only $5-$10 (depending on the area) and is even free on some days. Sit-down restaurants with prime views of the action take reservations and charge a range of about $20-$75 per person—but that price includes food and some of the best seats in the house.
Of course, the real money that changes hands at a horse race is in the betting. If you have the will power to go to a horse race and not place a bet, the whole day can be free or dirt cheap. On the other hand, placing a small bet doesn't have to be a big deal, as long as you follow the basic rule of never betting more than you're prepared to lose. A bet of $5-$10 can be viewed as paying a price to feel more a part of the action—and if your pick wins, then the winnings are a perk. Primary info to remember: you can place a bet on a horse to win (you only collect on first place), place (you collect if your horse comes in first or second), or show (you collect for a first, second, or third place finish).
Horse racing may not be as mainstream as baseball or football, but that makes it a little exotic as a family outing—and, it turns out, probably less expensive. Not only that, but for many kids a series of horse races can be more fun to watch than a series of pitchers walking the next batter. Most of all, knowing that LA has one of the country's top race courses, it really makes sense to go at least once. Maybe even once a year.
Photos courtesy of Santa Anita Park