Even if you're not a fan of horse racing, you've likely heard of the Triple Crown, a series of three races for young Thoroughbreds: the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs  in Louisville, Kentucky, the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico Race Course  in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park  in Elmont, New York. Winning all three races is such a rare feat that it hasn't been achieved for more than three decades, but that doesn't stop spectators from hoping for a miracle each spring.
Now, as famous as each of these racetracks are, they're not in fact my favorites. While on my travels, I've discovered three others that I favor even more.
Santa Anita Park
As a part-time resident of Southern California (SoCal), I've often visited Santa Anita Park  (285 W. Huntington Dr., Arcadia, 626/574-7223, $5-20 adults, children under 18 free with a parent, $4-10 parking), the region's oldest racetrack, to watch live horse races between December and April. In fact, I often live so close that, on breezy nights, I can even smell the stables.
Opened on Christmas Day of 1934, this thoroughbred racecourse is perhaps most well known as the site of Seabiscuit's final win in the spring of 1940 – it was even featured in the 2003 film starring Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire. With its distinctive art deco-style edifice and the surrounding palm trees, it's truly a lovely place to spend the day. Besides varied seating venues, you'll even find an assortment of on-site dining facilities, from the Sirona's sports bar on the Grandstand's main floor to the high-end FrontRunner Restaurant (626/574-1035) above the Club House Box Seats. If you're on a tight budget, consider visiting on “Free Fridays!” – when the park offers free general admission, free box seats, plus certain snacks and beverages (hot dogs, popcorn, soft drinks, beer, and coffee) for a dollar apiece.
When I lived in Chicago, my racetrack of choice was of course Arlington Park  (2200 W. Euclid Ave., Arlington Heights, 847/385-7500, $7 adults, children under 18 free with a parent, seating prices vary), which is nowadays operated by the same corporation that owns Churchill Downs. As with Santa Anita, Arlington offers several seating venues, from the Grandstand to the Executive Box Seats, as well as a variety of on-site dining facilities. The Million Room  (847/385-7410, Wed.-Sun., $5 seating charge), for instance, offers fancy dishes like filet mignon, plus an unparalleled view of the track, while The Paddock Pub  is the place to go for classic burgers and beer. Just be advised that reservations are recommended for the Million Room, and a strict dress code is required.
Of course, given its cold-weather locale, Arlington has a slightly different racing season from that of Santa Anita – it typically runs from late April to late September. As with the SoCal park, though, there are bargains for the budget-conscious visitor, including $5 general admission on Wednesday and $3 admission for seniors (55 and over) every Thursday.
Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots
Naturally, I can't forget my hometown turf. New Orleans has a racetrack, too – the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots  (1751 Gentilly Blvd., 504/944-5515, $6 clubhouse admission, free general admission), which features live racing in the fall and winter. America's oldest site of racing still in operation, the Fair Grounds began as the Union Race Course in 1852 and is today operated by Churchill Downs Incorporated.
In 2005, it was shut down for well over a year – due to damage incurred by Hurricane Katrina – but it's now as nice as ever, offering slot machines in addition to live racing. If you're hungry, you'll find the Clubhouse Dining Room (504/943-2200), which is only open on live racing days and for which reservations are recommended; the Grandstand Buffet (11 a.m.-7 p.m. Fri.-Mon.); two “grab-and-go” eateries; and various concession stands, featuring New Orleans cuisine.
Of the three racetracks, I've surely been most often to the Fair Grounds – though, admittedly, that could be because it's home to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival , the popular musical event (pictured above) that lures oodles of visitors to the Big Easy annually. As mentioned in a previous post , I've attended numerous Jazz Fests over the years – when, for two weekends each spring, the Fair Grounds racetrack is overrun with food and beverage booths, crafts displays, musical venues, and visitors galore. In fact, at such a time, it hardly resembles a hotbed of live horse racing – though indeed it is.
For more information about the metropolitan areas near these racetracks, consult the following Moon travel guides: Moon Metro Los Angeles , Moon Metro Chicago , and Andrew Collins' Moon New Orleans . Of course, if you prefer races of a wackier variety, check out “A Day at the Races,”  which covers everything from ostrich races to cardboard regattas.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me at laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.