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If you are new to US racing, it’s virtually all run on the flat with horses competing on both turf and dirt surfaces. The pace is usually very quick and getting a plum draw is of the upmost importance.
Those who like to bet on US racing are generally spoiled for choice. There will regularly be 10 or more meetings taking place, on any single day. Here are just some of the racetracks (both big and small) that you can find in America…
Ranked the number one course in America, by the Horseplayers Association, Keeneland is an amazing racetrack and also serves as an enormous reference library. It houses more than 10,000 books on horse racing, plus a huge catalogue of video footage and press cuttings.
The racetrack is just over a mile in length and has an all-weather surface. There is also a turf course, which is slightly shorter. There are no less than eleven G1 fixtures that are held at Keeneland.
The Alcibiades Stakes was introduced in 1952. It is an 8.5 furlong encounter for 2-year-old fillies.
The Ashland Stakes was inaugurated in 1936 and is a weight-for-age fixture for 3-year-old fillies.
The Blue Grass Stakes is over 100 years old and is a 9 furlong race for 3-year-old American-breds.
The Breeders’ Futurity Stakes was introduced in 1910 and is a Polytrack race for 2-year-olds. The race distance is 8.5 furlongs.
The First Lady Stakes is a relatively new addition. First run in 1998, it is a race for fillies and mares aged 3 years or more.
The Maker’s Mark Mile Stakes has been a fixture since the late 1980s and is a mile race for 4 year olds and up.
The Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes is run over 9 furlongs. 3-year-old fillies do battle, with a purse of $400,000 to be shared.
The Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes is a one mile race for colts and fillies. It takes place in early-October.
The Spinster Stakes is a 9 furlong fixture for horses aged at least 3 years.
The Vinery Madison stakes and the Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings completes the list of G1 races held at Keeneland Racecourse.
Hawthorne Racetrack is in Cicero, not far from Chicago. By American standards, this venue is very historic and was opened in the late 19th century. A man named Edward Corrigan, who was a successful local businessman, was responsible for bringing regular horse racing to this corner of Illinois. Within a year of purchasing the land, a shiny new racecourse was open for business, complete with its own grandstand.
Sadly, at the start of the 20th century, his grand project was in ashes following a terrible fire. This meant that the races staged at Hawthorne had to be moved to Harlem. The facility was rebuilt, but there was more bad news in 1905 when horse racing was outlawed in Chicago and the surrounding area. Finally, Corrigan could take no more and decided to sell-up. The racecourse was bought by a Thomas Carey in 1909.
The new broom did not bring an end to Hawthorne’s problems and it seemed like the venue was cursed. Carey was prevented from reopening Hawthorne on 2 occasions – this time by the sheriff’s department. One lengthy meeting did manage to take place in 1916, but it was a false dawn. That meeting was the last time the locals would see horse racing at Hawthorne until the early 1920s.
Things did improve throughout that decade, though and much of this was due to a new body taking over operations at Hawthorne. The Chicago Business Men’s Racing Association took control of the reins and oversaw the construction of the Clubhouse and the introduction of parimutuel betting. After an underwhelming start, Hawthorne continued to grow throughout the 20th century and finds itself in good health, well over a hundred years since the first spectators were allowed in.
There are many US horse racing venues that enjoy a much bigger profile and no G1 fixtures are held at Hawthorne. However, some significant races do take place. The Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap is a 10 furlong dirt-track event for horses aged 3 years or more. Introduced in the late-1920s, there is now a $350,000 purse on offer and the race always attracts a great deal of attention.
Redding Colliery, Headache, Pool Play and Last Gunfighter are all recent winners of the Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap. Among the most celebrated of recent champions is the 2009 winner, Awesome Gem. Sired by Awesome Again and out of a dam called Piano, this chestnut gelding was foaled in 2003 and was trained by Craig Dollase. Awesome Gem won a number of important races, including the Berkeley Handicap, the Longacres Mile Handicap, the Lone Star Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the San Fernando Breeders’ Cup Stakes.
Hoosier Park is a relatively low-key race course that is located in Anderson, Indiana. Like many new venues it combines a racetrack with a casino. This venue began to suffer financially when another race course was opened at Indiana Downs (just 40 minutes drive away).
The course at Hoosier Park is a s7 furlong dirt oval. The lack of an alternative turf course does restrict the number and variety of fixtures that can be held here. It isn’t all doom and gloom though! The venue has a loyal following and does hold at least one interesting race.
The Indiana Oaks takes place in early Autumn and is an 8.5 furlong contest for 3-year-old fillies. This race has been regularly taking place since Hoosier Park first opened in 1995.
The Indiana Derby was the most important race to be held at Hoosier Park. It also offered the highest purse that the course had ever put up – $500,000. However, this race has now been moved to Indiana Downs. The race distance is the same as for the Oaks, although this event is for all 3-year-old thoroughbreds.
Other Hoosier Park/Indiana Downs fixtures include the Hoosier Silver Cup Stakes, The Merrillville Stakes, The Brickyard Stakes, The City Of Anderson Stakes, The Too Much Coffee Stakes, The Indiana Stallion Stakes, The Richmond Stakes, The Indiana Futurity, The Frances Slocum Stakes, The Michael G. Schaefer Mile Stakes, The Hillsdale Stakes, The Gus Grissom Stakes and the Hoosier Silver Cup Stakes.
Situated on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky, this venue is more like a European racecourse than one you would associate with the United States of America. No dirt racing takes place here – Kentucky is all about the turf. You might think that would make it unpopular with the grizzled veterans of the Horseplayers Association of North America. On the contrary! Back in 2009, they voted Kentucky Downs as the second best track in the country!
The racecourse was first opened at the beginning of the 1990s and was originally known as Duelling Grounds. One-on-one gunfights were illegal in Tennessee back in the 19th century, but not in Kentucky. As the site rested on the border of both states, it naturally drew in those who wanted to fight it out in the tradition of the Old West. Duelling remained legal in parts of America, right up to the turn of the 20th century.
To begin with, only steeplechase events were held at Kentucky Downs. The Dueling Grounds International offered a purse of $750,000. To this day, it is the biggest prize-pool ever offered for a steeplechase event in the US.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a number of new racing venues open in America. This led to increased competition and many of the new venues experienced a rough ride. It was no different at Kentucky Downs and the course had to overcome a lot of financial difficulties. By the time all of the problems were ironed out, it was decided that the Dueling Grounds name had become associated with poor-management and lack of value for the paying customer. This is why the name was changed to Kentucky Downs.
The most important race to be held here is the Kentucky Cup Turf Stakes. This fixture is for horses aged 3 years and up. The runners travel a mile and a half and 3 year-olds receive a 4 pounds allowance.
The Kentucky Cup Turf Stakes takes place in the month of September. It is a G3 race and part of the Kentucky Cup Turf Festival. There is a purse of $400,000 on offer.
This racecourse is located in Cypress and was opened in 1951. Both thoroughbred and quarter horse racing take place at Los Alamitos. It is regarded as being among the most important venues for quarter horse racing in the whole of America and no less than 4 of its quarter horse fixtures carry a purse of over $1,00,000.
A man named Frank Vessels Snr was responsible for bringing horse racing to this part of California. His was a true rags to riches story. He left his home-state of Kentucky with less than $20 in his pocket and became a powerful construction magnate. This enabled him to buy an enormous ranch in Orange County. It was on that land that races first took place and Los Alamitos was a natural continuation.
The first meeting was held in the early-1950s and things didn’t get off to a terribly good start! It rained on all but one of the days of the meeting and the Vessels family were forced to pitch in and help with repairs, in order that the event could continue.
Vessels was a fighter though and would not be put off. He immediately invested another $100,000 into the venue and this encouraged the local horse racing board to grant Los Alamitos more days of racing. By as early as 1952, the racecourse was already considered to be a successful venture and crowds were huge.
One of the most popular horses to have run at Los Alamitos was a quarter horse called Go Man Go. Sired by Top Deck and out of a dam called Lightfoot Sis, this roan stallion was foaled in 1953 and was bred by JB Ferguson.
Major victories included the Barbara B Handicap, the Champion Stakes, the Ruidoso Derby, the State Fair Stallion Stakes, the Gold Bar Stakes, the New Mexico State Fair, PCQHRA Futurity, the Autumn Championship (on 2 occasions), the Wonder Lad Stakes (twice), the Clabbertown G stakes (3 times) and the Winner Take All Stakes.
Despite these victories, he was never jockey’s best friend and was well-known for playing-up at the starting gate. On one occasion, he threw the jockey before completing a whole circuit before he was caught. However, he still managed to win the race!
He was named World Champion Quarter Running Horse in 1955, 1956 and 1957. He was also inducted into the AQHA Hall of Fame.
Both quarter horse and thoroughbred racing take place at this racecourse, which is located in Altoona (Iowa). Following the state legalisation of parimutuel wagering, in the early 1980s, this racetrack eventually opened the gates in 1989. Unfortunately, the venue did not hit the ground running and had to file for bankruptcy just a couple of years later. However, revenues continued to pour in from off-track betting and this led to the venue reopening in 1993.
The situation improved markedly in the mid-1990s, as the course was granted approval to open a slot-machine casino. The revenue from this venture dwarfed receipts from the track and it is the casino that has bankrolled horse racing at Prairie Meadows, since then. The racing takes place on a dirt-track here, which is a mile in length. There is an additional chute which can be used for longer quarter horse events.
This is a blue-collar racecourse and the vast majority of races do not offer big purses. There are 3 races that do stand out and all are graded.
The Cornhusker Handicap was originally run at the Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack, which is in Nebraska. The race is significantly older than Prairie Meadows itself and has been running since the mid-1960s. It is a 9 furlong encounter for horses aged at least 3 years.
The Cornhusker Handicap is a G2 fixture. The other 2 important races are the Iowa Oaks and the Iowa Derby. Both are classed as G3 events.
Located in Arcadia (California) Santa Anita one of the most important horse racing venues in the United States. It is also among the most picturesque, sitting under the magnificent San Gabriel Mountain range.
This famous racecourse opened just after the turn of the 20th century. A gold prospector named Lucky Baldwin was responsible for getting the venue up and running. Things did not start out well, however. By 1909 the racetrack was no longer operating. 3 years later, a horrific fire destroyed the decaying property.
That seemed to be that, as far as Santa Anita racetrack was concerned. But in the early 1930s, following the legalisation in California of parimutuel betting, 2 syndicates combined to form the Los Angeles Turf Club. Santa Anita was reopened for business, in December 1934.
Bravely, the owners of the track decided to introduce a race with a huge purse in 1935. The Santa Anita Handicap was born and immediately was given the nickname ‘Big Cap’, due to the money that was on offer ($100,000 – an extraordinary sum at the time).
Nowadays, the purse is $750,000 and the race is a 10 furlong encounter for horses aged at least 4 years.
The Santa Anita Derby takes place in April. This is a G1 fixture for 3-year-olds and it is run on the dirt track. There is a $1,000,000 prize-fund and the runners travel a distance of 9 furlongs.
The Santa Anita Sunshine Millions Day is a series of 6 races for horses that have been bred in Florida. There used to be 8 races, but the Oaks and the Dash have been discontinued. That leaves the Sprint, the Filly & Mare Sprint, the Filly & Mare Turf, the Distaff, the Turf Stakes and the Classic.
Located at Westchase, Tampa Bay Downs was opened in the mid-1920s. During the Second World War, the course was closed down and used as an army training facility. The US military took over many racing venues during wartime, to be used by both the army and the navy.
When the war was over, the racetrack reopened as Sunshine Park. A limited amount of modernisation had taken place. There was now an electronic tote board, electric starting gates and equipment for photo finishes. The course has gone through several name changes, but has been known as Tampa Bay Downs since the mid-1980s.
There are 2 tracks at Tampa – a dirt course and also one with a turf surface. The dirt track is a one mile oval, while the turf course is slightly shorter, being 7 furlongs in length. However, a chute enables races to be extended on the turf.
While no G1 fixtures take place here, there are still some very good races for the locals to look forward to each season. The Tampa Bay Derby was introduced in 1981. This is an 8.5 furlong race for 3-year-old horses. It is always held on the dirt track and the purse is over $300,000. It is an official prep-race for the much more prestigious Kentucky Derby.
The Endeavour Breeders’ Cup Stakes is run over the same distance and is for fillies and mares aged 4 years and above. Run on the turf track, this event takes place in February.
The Hillsborough Stakes is also a turf contest for fillies and mares, although this fixture allows 3-year-olds to participate. The runners travel 9 furlongs and the prize-pool is $150,000.
The Sam F Davis Stakes is an 8.5 furlong dirt race for 3-year-olds only. Graded status was only awarded to this fixture in 2009.
While ungraded, The Florida Oaks still ranks amongst the most important races for 3-year-old fillies to be held in the state. This is reflected in the $200,000 purse that is on offer, for this 8.5 furlong event.
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