Fun in the shade on Belmont Stakes day. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)
One of my favorite things about going to the track is that you get to enjoy a variety of activities during and between each race. Remember, horse racing is a spectator sport, but during that in between time at the races (usually 20-30 minutes … although you could be betting races at other tracks!) there are so many things you can do: plan your next bet (I recommend walking to paddock, where the horses are warming up and being saddled before races to check them out in person), grab some food and drink (plenty of food and drink options), relax, socialize, people watch, bathroom break, gift/souvenir shop and more.
The following are some key/essential items to bring. I rarely think about bringing them because they’re engrained in my brain, or already in my car’s trunk, but for a novice to the racing scene they may prove to be beneficial.
Semi-essential items/recommendations in no particular order:
1. Sun-blockers - Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, umbrella. While most people like the idea of being sun-kissed, no one likes being sunburnt – once you’re sunburnt, the rest of our trip just isn’t as fun—it hurts! You can bring all of these sun-blockers, or even just one, it’s your call. Plus, if you bring an umbrella it can double as a shield from possible rain or showers (horses run in all conditions). Maybe it’s just me, or my recent luck, but the rain seemed to follow me from track to track during the Triple Crown run and I was hardly prepared.
Kroops’ Santa Anita Sunset Sunglasses
2. Cash - Whether you want to place a bet (of course, you do), pay for general admission ($2-$5 – no major sporting event more affordable), park, buy a racing program or splurge on some yummy track grub or beers, you’ll need cash. Most tracks seemingly require cash for everything, except the gift shops. I don’t know anyone that enjoys waiting in line to use an ATM and then having to pay those ridiculous surcharges. Additionally, bringing a specific amount of cash with you can help you gauge or monitor your spending … or winnings!
*Side note: there is no better feeling then hitting a few bets, eating and partying all day and going home with more money then you came with — priceless.
3. Dress comfortably - Wear comfortable shoes and clothes — remember you can be fashionable and even “dressed to the nines” while still being functional. If you’re a female and plan on walking around, make sure your shoes can deal with grass, dirt and gravel; not everywhere is paved, making it super easy to get your heels caught. Believe me, tripping in front of everyone is never fun. (Note, usually only the Clubhouse has a specific dress code). I highly recommend dressing the part on big race days and being part of the scene because it’s fun!
Ramona La Rue ladies with ambassador Mary Frances Dale (far right) were all comfy and chic at the Florida Derby
4. Key item - Don’t forget to bring a pen (or pencil), something to write with. Even if you don’t know how to read a race day program and hardly have a clue what all of the various numbers and figures means, it’s still fun to look through the horses, jockeys and trainers. Even if you’re only a $2 bettor (usually, the minimum bet) and don’t know much about the sport, you can always revert to picking names, jockey colors (silks) or even “lucky numbers” (birthdays, graduation years, whatever) and mark up your program with bets, picks and results. You don’t have to be a handicapper extraordinaire to have some fun: “Better to be lucky than good.”
5. Betting - Go with your gut, hunches and instinct. (They sell various pick sheets, by “experts,” but I say save your money for betting). There is no need to bet on every single race (usually 9-10 races), you're there to enjoy your day, to have some fun and to watch some of the best athletes (animal and human) go head to head. If you’re new to betting a fun thing to do is bet against your friends. Everyone puts up a small amount, and either randomly picks a number each, marks their picks in the program and then whichever friend wins takes home the pool of money. Usually, the day’s big winner can buy the next round of drinks (or dinner if cashing a big bet). Everyone loves a winner! Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions, there are plenty of people walking around the track that love to share their knowledge. Simple wagers to make – win: horse must finish first; place: horse must run either first or second; show: horse must run either first, second or third. Other wagers: exacta – predict exact order of first two finishers; trifecta: predict exact order of first three finishers; Daily Double: pick the winners of two races in a row. And my personal favorite thing to do it to box my bets, so if I bet a 3,5 exacta and box it the horses can run 3, 5 or 5, 3 and I win either way. Keep in simple at the beginning and always remember to have fun.
Ms. Racing Queen,Tatiana Schloeppler and ambassador Jose Contreras look over the Daily Racing Form at Gulfstream Park.
6. Visit the paddock - This is where horses get saddled, warm up and then parade before each race. It a great opportunity to see the horses up close, see which one you like before you place a bet. I try to always go with my gut; I like to think that you can tell who looks most up to the task ahead when you visit them in the paddock and look em’ in the eyes. Someone one told me to pay close attention to the horses that are best groomed, no one spends as much time with the horse as the groom (who spends 7 days a week preparing them and they are true horse listeners). The other reason is to people watch, the race owners are a “who’s who” of society — star athletes, Hollywood stars and socialites. You never know who you might see!
Orb schooling in the paddock before the Florida Derby.
7. Food and tailgating - Most tracks allow you to bring in your own food and snacks. Some tracks have a park-like quality to them, beautiful backdrops to spend a day. I recommend bringing chairs and relaxing in the back if possible.
People tailgating at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes day.
8. A Must … watch a few races live - Sure it’s fun to sit out back tailgating and enjoying the company of friends, but there’s something magical about being right at the starting gate as it bursts open with the roar and energy of the crowd or being near or at the finish line as the (hopefully your) winning horse passes the finish line. There are many options for you to see a race up close: sit in the stands, walk up on the apron to the finish line, stand near the starting gate or go to the “top of the stretch” – where the horses make the turn for home – and hear the thunderous pounding of the hooves and the riders’ loud banter as they jockey their horses in the best positions to win.
Horses coming around the turn at Saratoga Race Course.
9. Another must do, especially for big races - Go by the winner’s circle. This is where the owners, jockey and trainer all converge to pose for the “winning photo” and receive the various race trophies. On big days, it can be packed with media and celebrities.
10. Plan ahead - Find a good restaurant or local watering hole to continue the post-race party … either celebrating your winnings, recapping your day (famous race track slogan: “Should have, would have, could have”) or commiserating with friends.