We got up early on a mid-January Sunday morning and left the Queen Mary Hotel heading for a day at Santa Anita Park. Traffic was fairly light- light by L.A. standards, that is. Those of us used to pulling onto a highway on a Sunday morning and seeing long expanses of empty pavement ahead of us are still wondering how people drive in L.A. traffic every day without developing high blood pressure. We made it to the park though. And in plenty of time to join the Seabiscuit Tour. Or we would have, if we could have found the Seabiscuit Tour.
Our GPS got us to Santa Anita Park and signs directed us into the parking lot. We drove to the front and chose a space in the first non-handicapped parking row. This early in the morning, the lot was nearly empty.
There are two free Seabiscuit tram tours on weekend mornings which take you to the stable area, receiving barn, Paddock Gardens, the jockey’s room, and other behind the scenes areas. The first tour is at 8:30 and the second at 9:45. Their website stated that the first tour would not run if there were fewer than 10 people wanting to take the tour. It had left me with the impression that this wasn’t an attraction in high demand so we didn’t make a reservation. We weren’t sure if the weather would be good enough for a day at the races and we weren’t sure we would be able to make the tour time having arrived at our hotel late the previous night and not getting to bed until nearly 1 a.m.
But we did arrive at Santa Anita and had parked the car by 9 a.m. But where to go? This early the ticket booths were dark and empty and iron gates blocked our way. Racing didn’t start until 12:30 and the gates didn’t open for another hour and a half. We saw someone enter through an unmarked, open gate at the far end of the parking lot. We guessed it to be an employee entrance and we passed through the narrow opening. Alarm bells didn’t ring and no one came running to throw us out. We wandered inside the park, looking for a sign that would lead us to the tour or to anyone who might be able to point us in the right direction.
Lovely bronze statues and pretty gardens lined the way. Beds of pansies were in full bloom. Unusual trees we had never seen before grew next to sidewalks along with topiaries shaped like horses and riders, blooming Bird of Paradise, and Thunbergia vines. We could see the occasional employee heading one way or another but they were always far off in the distance. Too far for us to give a shout out. We finally spotted a man unlocking a nearby door. We asked where to find the Seabiscuit Tour. He didn’t know. A second man appeared from a different direction. He had not heard of the Seabiscuit tour either but he pointed us toward a long ramp at the far end of the park.
We hurried along the pavement, reaching the long ramp where we climbed to the top and entered a large room with closed up betting windows along one wall. People were sitting at tables, studying the racing sheets for the day. Still seeing no signs, we found a desk where a woman was passing out race forms and we asked about tickets for the Seabiscuit tram tour. This worker didn’t know the answer either, but she led us to a woman who directed us outside to the far end of the grandstand.
We hurried, back outside to the end of the grandstand and down some stairs. We finally found the Seabiscuit tram parked along a fence. It was 9:40. We had arrived in time but by now both the tram and the tour were already full.
Disappointed, we returned to the grandstand where we watched horses and riders doing their morning training and work-outs. The park is beautiful with its manicured grounds and track and the mountains rising in the background. It is also an inexpensive place to spend a day. The tram tour, if you can catch it, is free. Tickets to get into the track are priced for different events, but the day we were there general admission was only $5 and club house admission was $10. Box seats which include a TV were $10 per person. You choose the option you want.
Mid-morning we decided to grab a snack. I had a cheese danish–the best one I’ve ever had. Fresh pastry was filled in the center with a huge dollop of cheese filling that was at least an inch thick. The apple danish looked to be made with fresh apples rather than the usual canned filling. My son-in-law had a breakfast sandwich that also looked fabulous with sausage and fresh eggs fried in bacon fat on a thick croissant. At lunchtime we had huge hot dogs with chili and cheese on fresh bakery rolls. The “fast” food at Santa Anita Park was terrific.
We wandered around the park, watched trainers working with the animals, and photographed gardens and statues. Had we taken the tram tour it wouldn’t have been so much of a problem but we had a lot of time to kill until the racing started at 12:30 and there was little to do except sit around and enjoy each others company. At noon we wandered back to the front gates. Since we had walked into the park before the gates opened we needed to pay for our admission.
When we reached the ticket booths however, we were on the wrong side of the iron bars to buy tickets. We explained to a worker that we needed to pay our admission. He called over a manager who said that since we had arrived so early, our admission for the day would “be on” him. He stamped our hands and said it would allow us to go wherever we wanted. We immediately headed up to the grandstand and bought box seats near the finish line.
After the first race, Jay Cohen, who plays the call to the post, suddenly appeared in our box dressed in his fine red and gold jacket and carrying his long herald trumpet. I said that my grandson, Michael, was also a trumpet player and he gave Michael a paper that told his story and included trumpet playing tips. Mr. Cohen plays the call to post at race tracks all over southern California and even appeared in the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit.”
My only complaint about race day is that there is too much time between races. I suppose they want to give people time to place their bets but 30 minutes between each race was a lot of down time. We weren’t betting but we should have been. Many of the horses that Julie, Amy and I picked either won or came in 2nd. We watched the races until 3:30. Before leaving, we stopped to watch the jockeys mount their horses for the next race but by 4:00 we were on the road again, anxious to spend the evening hours with our California family.