I'm not a gambling woman. Well, I try not to be. But I do enjoy competition. Sometimes, the satisfaction of just winning—not even receiving a prize—is enough for me.
Over the course of my life, I've lived relatively close to such racing tracks as Vernon Downs, Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park, and Hollywood Park, and yet I had never witnessed a thoroughbred race.
It seemed like something I should do, even if it turned out I didn't like it.
But, of course, I love horses.
I turn into a little kid around them, squealing, "Horsies!"
I may have ridden a pony once at the circus or the Great New York State Fair ages ago, before a time my memory can really grasp...
...but I'm pretty sure I've never properly ridden a real, full-sized horse myself. That is also something I need to do.
On race days at Santa Anita, you can witness the race-bound horses clop around the walking ring before they hit the track. Sometimes, they freak out, and they get scratched from the race.
After they line up, other horses that will be racing in a couple of days follow suit, so they can get used to the paddock far enough in advance so they, too, don't get scratched from their races.
And then there's a third group of horses: those that "pony" the racing horses, guiding them to their starting position.
The ponying horses are trained to be accustomed to fans—and particularly children—so they're gentle and friendly and utterly pettable.
But once the jockeys start making their way out onto the track, the ponies have a job to do.
Santa Anita has both a dirt track and a turf track...
...and, depending on the starting point, the races might go as far as a half mile to a mile, though they only last a minute or two.
Still, for such a don't-blink type of event, there are lots of rules and regulations...
...including how much the jockey can weigh. Too light is okay (they can always add more weight), but if they're too heavy, they're out of the race.
Fans have a few choices as to their preferred vantage point...
...including the infield, the grandstand...
....or one of the several restaurants, club houses, and box sections available with a reservation and a little extra fee.
I'd rather stand, so I can be right up front.
It's the only way to really catch the action—which, to the untrained eye, is just a blur.
These thoroughbreds can run at speeds over 40 mph, but the longer the track, the slower they have to go to maintain pace without faltering.
The Guiness world record for fastest speed along a mile and a half track was actually broken at Santa Anita Park in 1989, and it's still held by a horse named Hawkster, who ran it in two minutes and 22.8 seconds at 37.82 mph.
Santa Anita Park was also the site of the first-ever use of a motion-sensor camera at the finish line. The "photo finish" is now customarily used to determine the winner of a race (by a nose, or by a tooth), especially when it's too close to tell with the naked eye or even on video.
If you come often enough, I suppose you get to recognize the horses by name or mane, but you don't really get to know them. You can't necessarily trust what you see in the paddock or on the track, because this is a business of keeping up appearances. But for the non-wagering kind like me, watching thoroughbreds run like the wind is such a beautiful thing, no matter which one finishes first.
Photo Essay: Santa Anita Park & Racetrack
Photo Essay: The Horses of the Rose Parade
Photo: Feeding the Wild Horses
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The Lesser of Two Gambles