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Lone Star Park (photo: Emily Shields)
Lone Star Park’s beautiful paddock features a delightfully inviting, crystal blue pool where the horses parade before each race, while Stetson-topped horseman fill the apron. (photo: Emily Shields)

Emily Shields on how she went back to her first true love - in a big way - to get over a failed relationship.

Heartbreak causes rational people to react in strange ways. Some press on like nothing happened, stoic and brave. Some curl up in a ball and cry while watching movies for days on end. I run away.

Not in the literal sense, although that works for some. Just hours after I had my heart broken, I put my two 4-year-olds in the car and drove over ten hours to see the Grand Canyon for the first time. I desperately wanted to experience something greater and vastly more permanent than one relationship, and start building up enough new memories that I could put distance between me and my failed relationship. The Grand Canyon was a dazzling and peaceful experience, but I’m a horseperson by trade and visiting racetracks, with their sprawling grounds and mammoth grandstands, is what really appeals.

That is how I came to visit 27 tracks in 2018.

Winter

Santa Anita Park
Santa Anita Park, California

The last stakes race at Santa Anita during the winter has a post time around 4pm, and the last flight to Portland, Oregon, out of Burbank Airport is about 6pm. I squeezed in that double and made my very first trip to Portland Meadows on a stereotypically rainy Sunday.

On a clear day Mt. Hood can be seen towering in the distance, but, with the wet Northwestern weather, it’s better to appreciate the variety of races on tap: Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds share daytime cards. It is small enough to have a family feel; kids run rampant along the outside rail despite the weather, but it is large enough to host a variety of stakes during the four-and-a-half-month-long meet.

Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco is underrated for its beauty. The grandstand overlooks the synthetic racetrack surrounded by plenty of greenery, but the parking lot has sweeping views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The elegant dining room high above the track is a refined and classy experience.


Portland Meadows
Portland Meadows, Oregon
Golden Gate Fields
Golden Gate Fields, California

I’d never been to Louisiana, which hosts four different Thoroughbred meets throughout the year. In 24 hours, I stopped by Evangeline Downs and witnessed live racing at both Delta Downs and the Fair Grounds. Delta Downs is famous for the alligator that lives in the infield, occasionally stopping races when he ventures onto the track. The Fair Grounds offers some of the best winter racing in the United States; Eclipse Champion Monomoy Girl began her championship season there on February 17.


Evangeline Downs
Evangeline Downs, Louisiana
Fair Grounds
Fair Grounds, Louisiana

One month later, I visited Turf Paradise in Phoenix and Rillito Park in Tucson on consecutive days. The two Arizona tracks are quintessential desert oases, drawing different crowds despite being only a two-hours drive apart. Turf Paradise had camels, zebras, and ostriches shipped in for a family day; the apron was littered with tents, longue chairs, and children on picnic blankets. Rillito has a predominantly Hispanic feel, with the line of cars seeking to park snaking around the block.


Turf Paradise in Phoenix
Turf Paradise, Phoenix, Arizona
Rillito Park,Tucson, Arizona
Rillito Park,Tucson, Arizona

Sunland Park in New Mexico
Sunland Park, New Mexico

Two weeks later, it was off to Sunland Park in New Mexico. You can see the Mexican border as you arrive. A lush and modern hotel overlooks the racetrack itself. I sipped a hot drink on the outside patio, watching muscled horses breeze by a few feet away. Authentic burritos and churros are served in the grandstand, which is overflowing with people on Sunland Derby day.


Spring

Days after Justify won the Santa Anita Derby, I jumped on a plane headed to Toronto, Canada, for the 2018 Sovereign Awards. I planned to stay a week, visiting both racetracks and stud farms. I spent part of the visit on a private Standardbred training farm, where long-nosed harness horses gamboled freely in snowy paddocks. A limestone gravel training track borders the backside of the farm; local trainers are welcome to use it in need.

Just down the street sits Kawartha Downs and Speedway, a harness track that also races stock cars and go carts on an inner road on Friday nights. Virtually halving the drive between Kawartha and the stunning spread that is Woodbine Racetrack is Ajax Downs, a Quarter Horse track that runs from May to October. Fans are able to get right up close to the action against the outside rail, and admission is always free.


Kawartha Downs and Speedway, Toronto, Canada
Kawartha Downs and Speedway, Toronto, Canada
Ajax Downs, Toronto, Canada
Ajax Downs, Toronto, Canada

Woodbine itself is going to look very different starting in 2019, with a second turf course being installed inside the synthetic main track. The massive plant has both dirt and turf training tracks and galloping paths, as well as stellar views of the CN Tower looming in the distance.

Woodbine Racetrack, Canada
Woodbine Racetrack, Canada

A twist in the story is that I am terrified of flying. Any little bump in flight sends my heart racing, which is why I have never been brave enough to schedule an overseas trip. By being all the way in Toronto from California, I figured I could make it through a red-eye flight and deal with the journey home when the time came. Completely on a whimsical impulse, I booked a 48-hour visit to England.

Touching down in London with little planning was one of the more surreal experiences of my life. I tasked a friend to drive me straight from the airport to Newbury to see Expert Eye run in the Group 3 Greenham Stakes, but the car broke down on the way and we didn’t make it to the track. Expert Eye finished second, but later won the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs.

The day after the disappointment of missing Newbury, we stopped off at Sandown Park then Epsom Racecourse, walking all the way from the wire to the famed Tattenham Corner, a sharp bend into the home straight of the undulating course.


Sandown Park, England
Sandown Park, England
Epsom Racecourse, England
Epsom Racecourse, England

Lone Star Park in Texas
Lone Star Park in Texas

Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs dawned wetter than most, and ultimately became the rainiest Derby on record. Justify splashed home under the Twin Spires, his victory highlighted by the spotlight aimed at the finish line, making his chestnut coat glow bright enough to see through the storm. While fans flocked to Pimlico to see the mighty Justify in action in the Preakness Stakes, I headed to Lone Star Park in Texas.

In late spring, the stifling temperature reached 97 degrees F. Lone Star’s beautiful paddock features a delightfully inviting, crystal blue pool where the horses parade before each race, while Stetson-topped horseman fill the apron.


Summer

The first week of June was spent visiting Thoroughbred centers in Pennsylvania. Penn National is bordered by the lovely Blue Mountains, while Parx plays host to the rich Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby each year.


Penn National, Pennsylvania
Penn National, Pennsylvania
Parx, Pennsylvania
Parx, Pennsylvania

Whenever a Triple Crown has been on the line, leading up to American Pharoah’s victory in 2015, the buzz has been electric, the tension on the Belmont Park grounds almost palpable. With Justify coming just three years later, the feeling was more incredulous than anything. He seemed a foregone conclusion as the big red colt cruised around the track, completing the Triple in almost effortless style.

The Triple Crown-winning horse is led all the way up to the top of the grandstand and back down again to the nonstop adulation of the crowd. It is an experience that sets goosebumps alight on your skin.


Belmont Park, NY
Belmont Park, NY

If you reach Salt Lake City, Utah, and keep driving another two hours north, you will eventually enter the quiet state of Wyoming. The drive is at times winding and rocky, but at the end of it, in the middle of a flat expanse of field, is Wyoming Downs. The predominantly Quarter Horse track offers a meet just six weeks long, and fans enjoy a party atmosphere while watching from bleachers set back from the track rail.


Wyoming Downs
Wyoming Downs

The $1 million TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar featured Accelerate romping home in a breakout performance, scoring by 12½ lengths. Post time was 6:44pm, with first post at Los Alamitos, 82 miles north, just an hour later. It is possible to fit in both tracks in a day, but the famous oval by the sea and the newly updated mixed breed track in Cypress, California, are worlds apart. Del Mar features long, lazy days, where fans can watch workouts, spend a late morning at the beach, and still smarten up in time for racing. A night-time Los Alamitos card moves quickly through the dark, like the dashing Quarter Horses that often run there.


Del Mar, California
Del Mar, California
Los Alamitos, California
Los Alamitos, California

Fall

I returned in England in September for racing both there and in Ireland. Just over the border from Wales and nestled near the River Dee is Chester, a rambling grass course set beneath brick walls. Every race I saw there proved thrilling, with horses finishing inches apart and riders driving higher and with more motion than they do in the United States.

An early morning flight out of Manchester put me in Ireland in time for racing at Leopardstown, where Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior put on one of the greatest battles of the year in the Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes. Horses at Leopardstown are walked through hundreds of meters of grass before they reach pavement alongside a school that borders the track. From there they meander through a parking lot to get to the saddling enclosure and walking ring. There is more fanfare before and after the Irish Group 1 races than anything in the United States.


Chester, England
Chester, England
Roaring Lion at Leopardstown, Ireland
Roaring Lion at Leopardstown, Ireland

Curragh, Ireland
Curragh, Ireland

The next morning, I watched horses train at the Curragh, where the grandstand is under construction, but temporary structures were erected for the 2018 season, including Irish St Leger day. Fans in Europe have opportunities to lay eyes on the horses for much longer, as they are walked in accessible enclosures away from the main paddock well before their races.

After the excitement of Breeders’ Cup and sales season at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, there was only one track left on my docket for the year: Aqueduct in New York. The inside of the grandstand is decorated with unusual but splendid murals depicting various equine affairs, while the country’s best late-fall racing is conducted outside.

Aqueduct was the 53rd racetrack I’ve visited. Recently – almost exactly one year later – I had my heart broken again. Luckily, there are still plenty of racetracks in all corners of the world calling my name.

Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY
Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY
Aqueduct Racetrack, New York
Aqueduct Racetrack, New York


All photos by Emily Clark. This article originally appeared in Gallop Magazine and is published here with permission.

Find other interesting stories is our section on Recreation & Lifestyle. All of these unique racetracks and more are included in our section on Horse Racing. Check it out!

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