Overview of the Racing Season
By Kevin Martin, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor
Before we discuss a race season, it is important to note that there is no official racing season. The primary reason being that racing does not have a centralized organizing body like other major sports. Instead it is overseen by state racing boards and track owners or, in the case of New York, operated by a non-profit organization sanctioned by the state (New York Racing Association aka NYRA). So, when it comes to a racing season, there is some level of subjectivity.
If one has a local track that they attend frequently, that might serve as the focus for their season. Others might have a season that follows the higher level circuit and the major races that make up the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup. Most racing fans will have a different perception of a race season but the aforementioned local and national scenes are the primary anchors to most fans season. Another thing to keep in mind, the tenuous nature of the racing business makes any perceived race season subject to change.
For the sake of providing a big picture overview, here is a race season that follows the major circuits anchored by the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup.
January to April
During the winter major trainers, owners, and jockeys move most of their operations to the following locales: Gulfstream Park in Florida, Santa Anita in California, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, the Fairgrounds in New Orleans, and Aqueduct in New York. Not coincidentally all of these tracks host major preps for the Kentucky Derby (Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby, Wood Memorial). Additionally, the Santa Anita Handicap and the Donn at Gulfstream Park are major races for older horses. In April, the spring meet at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky is the central focus for the racing universe. While the Derby prep at Keenland, the Bluegrass, has lost some of its prestige in the last few years, the racing during the spring meet is among the best in the country.
May and June
Of course, May and June are all about the Triple Crown and the opening of the host tracks for the big races: Chuchill Downs in Kentucky, Belmont Park in New York, and Pimlico in Baltimore. The Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness comes two weeks later, and the Belmont Stakes closes out the series three weeks after the Preakness. All three of the big weekends surrounding these races bring other races of significance for fillies and mares as well as older horses. Out west, Santa Anita continues since Hollywood Park has closed for good. Races like the Met Mile, the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (formerly the Hollywood Gold Cup), and the Stephen Foster for older horses are a few of the important races run during this period. After the running of the Belmont Stakes in the middle of June, many race fans take a breath and prepare themselves for summer racing.
July and August
Summer racing is the way it should be — warm weather, great tracks, and lots of good racing. The summer includes the fair circuit in California, the last of the once prominent fair circuits that used to occupy summers in many states. Arlington Park in Chicago hosts a summer meet that includes the Arlington Million as well as other significant turf races. Monmouth Park in New Jersey has the Haskell Stakes for 3-year-olds and the United Nations on the turf. The month of August is, for many, the highlight of the racing year. August brings the opening of two crown jewels of American racing venues: Saratoga in New York and Del Mar in California. Both tracks draw big crowds and attract some of the best horses and connections from around the country. The list of important races at Saratoga and Del Mar is long but the biggest races of the two meets are the Travers in New York and the Pacific Classic out west.
September to October
September brings a series of significant preps for the Breeders Cup, the year end championships usually run at the end of October (or first weekend in November). The fall brings the return of racing to Santa Anita, Keeneland, and Belmont Park. All three tracks host prep races for the Breeders Cup. Many of the runners who make the starting gate for the Breeders’ Cup, will race in one of the major stakes races hosted at these three venues during the fall.
October to December
Much like the Triple Crown races earlier in the year, Breeders’ Cup weekend is the centerpiece for this time of the racing season. The purses and prestige of the Breeders’ Cup, an event held since 1984, attracts all of the focus and brings the best horses together making it one of the most popular day(s) on the racing calendar. However, for a game without a real season, the Breeders’ Cup Championships does not “officially” mark the end of the racing year. After the Breeders’ Cup, a handful of significant races are run including the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, the Clark at Churchill Downs. Starting in 2014, Del Mar in California inaugurated a fall meeting to fill some of the void left by the closing of Hollywood Park. Among the races run at that meeting is the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby one of the last significant stakes races of the year for 3-year-olds.
The ultimate proof that the racing season is subjective, will come with those who disagree with the above. Race fans like to disagree — no doubt, someone just read this and is annoyed that it didn’t mention their hometown track. “Can’t believe he didn’t mention the ‘Del Cap‘ at Delaware Park!” Racing doesn’t have home teams but it does have home tracks, which are defended vociferously by those who love them. The reason being that most race fans fell in love with the game at their hometown track. Whatever your season might turn out to be, if you have a track nearby, your best bet is to start there. Witnessing the races live is a beautiful thing. Racetracks are unique places, and while some are better then others, they all possess a little magic.