It's 7:30 a.m. at Santa Anita. The first race of the day is not for five hours, but many cars already are dotting the Arcadia racetrack's parking lot. My husband and I walk toward the track, and our two children become excited as the horses grow closer. Finally, we stand just a few feet away from the thoroughbreds as we watch them exercise on the other side of the fence.
It feels as though we've sneaked into the historic park. Lying at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, it was designed by noted L.A. architect Gordon B. Kaufmann and opened in 1934. It is here that the battered and beloved racehorse Seabiscuit won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap in record time (coming soon to a theater near you).
As jockeys and trainers chat amiably over coffee, we join the other early birds who have congregated on the terrace for breakfast at the outdoor cafe, Clocker's Corner. My 5-year-old daughter, Bridgette, is content to sit and watch the horses pass by on the track at varying speeds during their morning workout.
Some come up to the fence. They are beautiful, in all shapes, sizes and colors. These are not like the ponies we're used to seeing on our outings to Griffith Park. After breakfast, Bridgette stumbles upon a treasured artifact from a previous race -- a jockey's broken goggles, heavily caked with mud.
These training sessions are held from 5 to 10 a.m. every live racing day and are free to the public. We were sorry to miss the guided tram tour of the stable area, also free and offered weekend mornings from 8 to 9:30, but my 18-month-old, Bob, was fading after climbing the empty bleachers so many times.
There is no question that Santa Anita is first and foremost a gaming institution, but it's surprisingly family friendly too. This is no accident. In December, the park opened the terrific new playground, Anita Chiquita, that accommodates toddlers on one end, bigger children on the other, and once a month holds Family Fun Days on the infield.
"The perception of a racetrack differs from the reality," park spokesman Stuart Zanville says. "Many people come to the racetrack and never make a bet. This is a beautiful, safe, clean place that really lends itself to family outings. Many people tell me that they attended their first race with a parent or a grandparent."
At February's Family Fun Day, which I had attended a week earlier with my kids and a friend, we witnessed savvy families littering the infield lawn with umbrellas, coolers and racing forms in tow. Judging from the young boy who patiently explained to me how to read the giant scoreboard -- "It says two minutes to the next race right there. See it?" -- going to the racetrack is a family affair for many.
On Family Fun Days, the park also offers face-painting and pony rides (on Sugar and Spice) for $2 apiece, along with free access to a variety of "bouncy" apparatuses including a jump for joy, a giant slide and an obstacle course.
Picnickers may bring food but not alcohol. The park also has many food offerings, from rice bowls to grilled chicken, hot dogs to pizza. Even the upscale Frontrunner restaurant serves grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken strips on request (they're not on the menu).
At 320 acres, the picturesque park is a wonderland for kids with little or no attention span who like to move from one thing to the next. Families can picnic and play on the infield, then move to the grandstand to view the races. From there, visitors can head to the walking ring to see the horses before they hit the track, or watch the races from box seats equipped with monitors.
Because of the park's size, however, visitors who bring more than one child might want to double up. I was lucky to have my friend at Family Fun Day because my children wanted to do different things in different areas at the same time. That parental advisory aside, a day at the races is ultimately a safe gamble for families who want to slip out of the neighborhood for a day.
Santa Anita Family Fun Days
Where: Santa Anita Racetrack, 285 W. Huntington Drive, Arcadia
When: Saturday and April 20; gates open at 11 a.m. and post time for the first race is 12:30 p.m. Season ends April 20.
Cost: General admission, $5; Club House, $8.50; Turf Club (dress code), $15. Children 17 and younger, free with a parent. Parking, $4 to $10.
Info: (626) 574-7223