Travel

Hot tips on California's premier racetracks

California is home to more racetracks than any other state, with four dominant tracks and a dozen lesser venues, such as state fairs, where thoroughbreds line up shoulder to shoulder. The majors tend to be tributes to Old California. Each of the Big Four has its own bloodlines and vibe. As Santa Anita holds its fall season, and Hollywood Park and Golden Gate Fields follow soon, here's a look at what makes them distinct and how to get the most for your money — at least till it comes to betting the trifecta.

Santa Anita Park, Arcadia

Racetracks have the best ambience of any venues in sports, and Santa Anita Park is Exhibit A. This track is a LeRoy Neiman painting sprung to life. The picturesque venue is best known for being the home of the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit. It has had a role in many Hollywood hits and will be featured in the upcoming HBO series "Luck."

Seasons: Sept. 30-Nov. 6, Dec. 26-April 22.

Getting there: Thirty minutes from downtown Los Angeles and 45 minutes from LAX.

Inside tips: At Clocker's Corner, racing fans can watch early-morning workouts and mingle with the jockeys, trainers and owners as they work their horses. Sessions run 4:45-10 a.m., but prime time is 7-8:30 a.m. Concessions sell breakfast and coffee.

Need a post-race beverage? The Derby, just a few furlongs off the track, is a classic steakhouse and drinking trough and draws crowds of Santa Anita horsemen. 233 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia; (626) 447-2430, http://www.thederbyarcadia.com.

Need a steak? Pasadena's Arroyo Chop House has great cuts of beef. Dinners from about $40; 536 Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena;(626) 577-7463, http://www.arroyochophouse.com. The track's mouthpiece, Mike Willman, also recommends Callahan's in Azusa, a friendly joint that serves a nice slab of prime rib and features a convivial bar. Dinners from about $15; 200 S. Irwindale Ave., Azusa; (626) 334-5532.

Other hangouts: For a neighborhood vibe and a wide-ranging menu, try Nikki C's. Dinners from about $20; 470 S. Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 792-7437, http://www.nikkics.com. The racing crowd also gives high marks to Matt Denny's for its well-priced burgers and $15.95 tri-tip platter; 145 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia; (626) 462-0250, http://www.mattdennys.com.

Lodging choices: The grounds at the Langham Huntington, formerly the Ritz-Carlton, feel like an extension of Santa Anita. Rooms from $170; 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena; (626) 568-3900, http://www.pasadena.langhamhotels.com. DoubleTree Inn is more affordable though significantly less memorable. Rooms from $122; 924 W. Huntington Drive, Monrovia; (626) 357-1900, doubletree1.hilton.com.

Hollywood Park, Inglewood

This former Hollywood hangout burned down in 1949, was rebuilt in 1950 and in 1951 hosted racing's first $1-million horse, Citation. It's still vibrant, as seen when it hosted

Zenyatta's 19th straight win last year.

Season: Nov. 10-Dec. 18.

Getting there: 10-minute cab ride from LAX; 20-30 minutes from downtown.

Insider tips: Hollywood Park is popular for its night racing, rarely available at other tracks. Concerts follow the races on some nights.

Need a post-race beverage? Pancho's in Manhattan Beach is a great place to watch sports and drink margaritas with friends. Or grab brunch before the races. Brunch from $16.95; 3615 Highland Ave.; (310) 545-6670, http://www.panchosrestaurant.com.

Need a steak? For a classic steak or seafood, try the Buggy Whip. Better cuts of beef start at about $30, which includes chowder or salad and sides; 7420 La Tijera Blvd., Westchester; (310) 645-7131, http://www.thebuggywhip.com.

Other hangouts: Paco's Tacos in Westchester makes tortillas fresh all day long, entrees less than $10; 6212 W. Manchester Ave.; (310) 645-8692. Coffee Co. serves good affordable breakfasts, crepes and home-style food; 8751 La Tijera Blvd., Westchester; (310) 645-7315.

Lodging choices: Many of the chains around LAX offer slight discounts for track fans. For instance, the Crowne Plaza offers weekend rates from $89.95 (with race discount); 5985 W. Century Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 642-7500, http://www.ichotelsgroup.com.

Del Mar, Del Mar

Riding on its beautiful small-town coastal setting, Del Mar boasts the highest daily attendance of all the California tracks, often double that of Santa Anita. Slogan is "Where the turf meets the surf," from a Bing Crosby song played daily at the track. It was the location of Seabiscuit's famous match race against Ligorati in 1937.

Season: July 18-Sept. 5.

Getting there: The track is about 100 miles south of Los Angeles, a two-hour drive on a good day. Trains run from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and stop in Orange County before arriving at Solana Beach, where free double-deck buses shuttle you to the track.

Insider tips: Del Mar offers Daybreak at Del Mar, which runs from sunrise to about 9 a.m. and gives you a chance to watch morning workouts and catch some behind-the-scenes information.

Need a post-race beverage? Jimmy O's, a jumpin' sports bar and restaurant in the heart of downtown Del Mar; 225 W. 15th St., (858) 350-3735.

Need a steak? Red Tracton's, across the street from the track, is a popular pre- and post-race destination. Known for its steak and seafood, it's also a great spot for a pre-race Bloody Mary. A lively piano bar in the evenings. Steaks from about $25; 555 Via de la Valle, Solano Beach; (858) 755-6600, http://www.redtractonssteakhouse.com.

Other hangouts: Try Fidel's Little Mexico for happy hour or dinner on the heated patio. Entrees from less than $10; 607 Valley Ave., Solana Beach; (858) 755-5292. The Green Flash, beachy good time on the sand with killer sunsets. Dinner entrees from about $11; 701 Thomas Ave., San Diego; (858) 270-7715, http://www.greenflashrestaurant.com.

Lodging choices: If you feel lucky or want to act like a high roller, L'Auberge del Mar Resort & Spa is the spot. Rooms from $275; 1540 Camino del Mar, Del Mar; (800) 245-9757, http://www.laubergedelmar.com. Hampton Inn is nothing fancy but is close to the finish line. Rooms from $84; 11920 El Camino Real, Del Mar; (858) 792-5557, http://www.hamptoninndelmar.com.

Golden Gate Fields, Berkeley

This 70-year-old track, eight miles from Oakland and 11 miles from San Francisco, is known for its breathtaking city and bay views and for hosting Bill Shoemaker's first win ever in 1949. The track crosses the Albany-Berkeley city line.

Season: Oct. 20-Dec. 18.

Getting there: Off Interstate 80. Take Gilman Street or Buchanan Street exits to enter the track. To avoid fighting traffic, hop on BART and take it to the North Berkeley station. From there, the free shuttle will whisk you to the track. The shuttle leaves every half-hour and returns patrons to the station at the end of the day. See the schedule at http://www.goldengatefields.com.

Inside tip: Find the perfect lid at Berkeley Hat Co. This unusual shop offers an outstanding selection of hats, giving you a fresh look and maybe your good luck charm for a day at the races; 2510 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley; (510) 549-2955.

Need a post-race beverage? Less than a mile from the track, Pyramid Ale House is the place for hand-crafted beers, all made on-site; 901 Gilman St., Berkeley; (510) 528-9880, http://www.pyramidbrew.com.

Need some seafood? Dungeness crab cakes, a grilled lamb salad and baby back ribs are among the dishes offered at Townhouse Bar & Grill, a former bootlegging facility once run by a guy named "Blackie." Entrees from $14; 5862 Doyle St., Emeryville; (510) 652-6151, http://www.townhousebarandgrill.com.

Other hangouts: Get your dive bar on at Missouri Lounge, a friendly spot with a variety of beers; 2600 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; (510) 548-2080.

Lodging choices: DoubleTree Berkeley, at the Berkeley Marina, is the closest hotel to the track and offers good views of San Francisco Bay. Rooms from $118; 200 Marina Blvd., Berkeley; (510) 548-7920), doubletree1

.hilton.com. Claremont Resort & Spa in the Oakland hills is a classy hotel with spectacular views of San Francisco Bay. Rooms from $145; 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley; (510) 843-3000), http://www.claremontresort.com.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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