Although I know little about horse handicapping, visiting Santa Anita Park is one of my favorite winter rituals. This 1934 art deco masterpiece is a sight to behold anytime ― but especially during the crisp, smogless months, when the racetrack's broad backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains is made all the more dramatic.
The last time I visited, I had misgivings: New owners had proposed controversial renovations, prompting the National Trust for Historic Preservation to add the racetrack to its list of America's 11 most endangered sites. I was relieved to find that most of the architectural blows seem glancing.
The Paddock Gardens ― where I watched the horses and their jockeys go through their prerace paces ― is still a dazzling landscape of richly hued pansies and birds of paradise, interspersed with hedges sculpted into equine forms. Two elevator towers have been added to the main structure's majestic façade, but matching green paint and the integration of the original horse frieze help mitigate their intrusion.
Making my way into the Club House, I headed to the FrontRunner restaurant, Santa Anita's latest culinary showpiece. In this glassed-in space five stories above the finish line, I simultaneously deliberated between tuna niçoise and lobster tortillas and a $2 bet on the favorite versus a 14-1 long shot.
After dessert, still hungry for the raw racing experience, I returned to the general admission grandstand to mix with a cross-section of Angelenos. A new 2,000-square-foot video monitor helped me follow the leaders without obscuring too much of the track. As the pack crossed the finish line, the frenzy abruptly subsided into glee or disgust. Pulse back to normal, I placed my next bet and prepared to be transported once again.
Live racing Wed-Sun and holiday Mondays, Dec 26-Apr 16. General admission $5 (box seats $16), parking $3. 285 W. Huntington Dr. (at Baldwin Ave.), Arcadia; (626) 574-7223.