SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Locals like to joke that if you aren't addicted to horse racing before a trip to Saratoga Springs, you will be after a visit during the summer thoroughbred season.
"Come in the summer once and you'll be planning how to get back here every summer to play the ponies," local Mike Maloney said, laughing.
There's surely some truth in that. This upstate New York town has the oldest thoroughbred track in the country, dating back 143 years. You can almost hear the history in the hoof stomps shaking the old grandstand.
Not that golfers are likely to need converting.
It's no mere happenstance of the crowded season that Saratoga-area golf courses are busiest during the six-week racing season that typically ends around Labor Day. There's plenty of crossover between racetrack enthusiasts and golfers.
"It's no secret - most golfers like to gamble," said Scott Bowles, who makes a nice living selling golf packages to gambling meccas like Las Vegas and Niagara Falls. (Yes, there are casinos alongside those raging waters.)
What group of recreational sportsmen makes more side bets on their games than golfers? "Two-dollar Nassau" is as much as part of the vocabulary as "birdie" (probably more for most average golfers). Drinks at the bar can hinge on everything from closest-to-the-hole to closest-to-the-slow-poke-group-in-front-of-you.
So horse racing is a natural golf-trip tie-in. What's more exciting than a round at a great course followed by screaming at the horses with a $2 ticket clutched in your sweaty palm?
Problem is, most of your well-known top golf destinations don't have very alluring racetracks. Going to Phoenix's Turf Paradise after visiting one of Scottsdale's showcase courses is like hitting White Castle to cap a night at the Oscars.
That's how it is in many traditional golf meccas.
There are great horse racing/golf hot spots; they just require a little venturing from the usual paths. Here are some of the best bets (pun intended).
Horses in the fairway
How about placing your bets then hearing the results as you tee off? How about hitting the trifecta while you're on the green?
White paddock fences stand near the borders of several holes. On White Clay Creek's 11th and 12th golfers can hear the race announcer calling the afternoon's action over a scratchy loudspeaker. It doesn't get any closer to horse-racing golf than this.
Another good option in the New York-Philadelphia corridor is Monmouth Park on the Jersey Shore. This high-class track that's attracted Kentucky Derby winners to its summer-season highlight Haskell Invitational puts you close to worthwhile courses such as Hominy Hill and Pine Barrens Golf Club.
Racing with the stars
Everyone knows Churchill Downs, storied home of the Kentucky Derby, is the Vatican of horse racing. Few realize that Hollywood Park is ranked third-best in the country by thoroughbred enthusiasts. And Los Angeles offers a lot more golf options than Louisville. A lot more everything options, for that matter.
Wagering at Hollywood Park can mean mingling - or at least seeing the security of - Tinseltown bigwigs like Kevin Costner, Jack Nicholson and Pierce Bronson. The track, located in anything-but-star-studded Inglewood, is at a crossroads, though; its owner - Churchill Downs, coincidently enough - is reportedly considering razing it and putting up a more upscale oval in Orange County.
As long as it's still there, Hollywood Park gives horse-playing golfers a place to hit the windows when they're not enjoying the golf glitz on LA-area courses like Trump National LA and The Lost Canyons.
Hollywood Park and the nearby Santa Anita (ranked No. 4 by racing lovers) offer an exception to the out-there golf/horse racing spots.
No need to get crabby
Pimlico in the northern reaches of Baltimore is home to the Preakness, one of the Triple Crown races, but nearby good golf options are harder to find than the grandstand in this town better known for its crabs than its courses.
Still, you can find decent plays while visiting one of horse racing's biggies.
Hit Pete Dye's Bulle Rock north of the city or the publicly owned but upscale-feeling Greystone in suburban Baltimore County and you'll be picking a winner. The really adventurous might consider two-hour side trip to Fredericksburg, Virginia for a quirky scene with some better-than-expected golf.
But if you want a small-town feel with your elite horse racing, it's hard to beat Saratoga. This town of 26,000 has loads of restaurants and B&Bs off the main drag, that Yankee Stadium of racetracks and some seriously daunting golf at courses such as Saratoga National.
Saratoga National's green fee jumps $35 to $175 during the July 17-Sept. 4 racing window. Its owners know golfing horsemen cannot resist. New York sports-radio personality Mike Francesa is just one of the guys who builds his vacations around Saratoga's racing schedule. Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells never missed a summer during his various short-lived retirements.
"In August, all the guys out on this course are from out of town in for the races, paying almost $200 to play," Maloney said, shaking his head.
"Of course," he added with a smile, "I guess that doesn't matter if you win enough at the track."
August 28, 2006