Remember life as a kid, when your dad dragged you along for a day at Rockingham? Distant thoughts of crossing the Peace Bridge for a day at the races in Fort Erie linger like fine perfume. Awaiting the return of the thoroughbreds to Ellis Park is a rite of the season
Destination horse racing is the salt on a medium rare steak. You may eat meat and potatoes at Finger Lakes or Calder, but food cooked by somebody else seems to always taste better. Despite today’s 24/365 season, several racetracks remain where flavor is a primary ingedient. Let’s go on vacation.
Restricted to horses born north of the 49th parallel, recent Queen’s Plates have been won by some ordinary horses like Wild Desert and Wando that couldn’t cut the mustard south of the border. But the 1-1/4 mile race on the Polytrack has also been won by such stars of the sport as Dance Smartly, Kennedy Road and Northern Dancer. Alas, it’s not the sport that you go for. It’s the history and ambience.
2011 marks the 152nd Queen’s Plate – North America’s oldest continuing stakes race. Woodbine made a major transition from a seasonal thoroughbred racetrack to a casino with trotters and flat runners in 2001 and its business has prospered since. The racetrack operates as a spotless, state of the art facility. The day itself has a touch of the pomp and circumstance. With the vibrant city of Toronto, hosting world-class restaurants, hotels and museums in its backyard, Woodbine, especially at Queen’s Plate time, should rank high on anyone’s list for a weekend getaway.
Enjoy the English countryside, July 27-July30. The dress at Glorious Goodwood, the five days of graded horse racing that takes place in Sussex, England, used to be morning tails, as it is at Royal Ascot and Epsom. But someone wanting a change decided that Panama hats would produce a unique effect that would take horse racing fashion in a more modern direction. That direction produces a quintessential summer chic that’s complete with Pimms and views of the British countryside.
Through five days of preening and horse racing, more than 100,000 people will flood through the quaint gates to enjoy an incomparable atmosphere. That may not seem like many, considering Del Mar and Saratoga averages. Yet, for the scale of the operation, attendance is impressive, both in numbers and quality. Royalty and celebrities, for example, show up in droves. Top trainers, jockeys and owners create an International A-List. More people will turn out for Ladies Day (on Thursday, July 28) for the Goodwood Cup than for the Sussex Stakes, one of the world’s most important mile races. But any day from July 26 until July 30 is worth catching.
Vacationers on a budget may think that the Haskell Invitational offers cost savings that trump traveling to Europe. But England and back is a journey that can be made back and forth in a couple days, so the horse racing fan with a little to spend can take in both in the same week.
Catch the real “Midsummer Derby,” Sunday, July 31. The timing (four weeks earlier) and shorter distance (1-1/8 miles) of the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park has made it an appealing alternative to Saratoga’s late August Travers Stakes. And, at $1.25 million, the purse is bigger by an amount - $250,000 - that many racetracks aren’t even able to scrape up for a stakes as a whole.
Following the trend to bunch several attractions on one card, Monmouth’s management has decorated Haskell day with eight stakes, making it the Garden State’s biggest day of horse racing. That move adds fuel to
the otherwise enjoyable experience of hobnobbing in the clubhouse or eating an ice cream cone at a picnic table of one of America’s prettiest racetracks.
In addition, the nearby Jersey Shore, where the surf meets the Sopranos, and the Housewives and Snookie all frolic, is becoming a brand that’s deserving of steady purchase. You can get there from Penn Station in less time than getting to Saratoga, and from Newark International, where your flight from Heathrow is landing, the ride to Oceanport is even shorter.
The August Places to Be, from July 20 to September 7. Del Mar and Saratoga surrendered their rights to be called boutique meets when they stretched out their seasons beyond the number of race dates they became famous for. Nevertheless, the two high-class action centers bookend the country with unique presentations. Thousands of people consider an annual visit to one or the other as ritual. If horse racing was conducted in the rest of the country the ways they put it on, the sport would be infinitely more popular.
Pick your flavor – the laid back beach vibe of Southern California or New York City moved north to the Adirondacks. By objective standards, neither racetrack is modern, offering little to comfort its patrons. But, oh, how they’re loved, proving clearly that matters like these are judged by the heart and not the intellect. When it comes to some things, common sense, after all, goes on holiday.
Vic Zast wrote his column while on vacation. He is traveling by RV from Chicago to the Arctic Circle to play golf at midnight. You can learn more about the trip at http://www.ourlongestdrive.com.