To horse-racing fans, the first Saturday in May means one thing: the running of the Kentucky Derby at Louisville's Churchill Downs. Of course, horse racing is a year-round sport, and there's nothing quite like experiencing the thunder of charging Thoroughbreds live and up-close. Marlene Smith-Baranzini, co-author of Horse Racing Coast to Coast: A Traveler's Guide to the Sport of Kings, shares a list of her favorite racing venues with Tim Smight for USA TODAY.
Churchill Downs Louisville
"The Kentucky Derby is the biggest mint-julep-and-elegant-hat party of the year. The whole city of Louisville goes all-out, with a fireworks festival, theater and music events and plenty more," Smith-Baranzini says. Churchill Downs, redesigned and upgraded in recent years, still sports the iconic twin spires that rise atop the grandstand. Racing at the legendary track starts one week before the Derby and continues into early July. A fall meet runs from late October through Thanksgiving weekend. 502-636-4400; churchilldowns.com
Saratoga Race Course Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Located in upstate New York, Saratoga Springs is a charming historic cultural arts enclave known for its curative hot springs. For six weeks each summer — from late July through Labor Day — it is also one of the nation's premier horse-racing venues. "The track and its famous striped-umbrella picnic grounds sprawl within walking distance of tony eateries, Victorian inns and historic Revolutionary War landmarks," Smith-Baranzini says. 718-641-4700; nyra.com/index_saratoga.html
Lone Star Park Grand Prairie, Texas
"Lone Star Park delivers big, Texas-style racing entertainment in this vast, relatively new facility west of Dallas," Smith-Baranzini says. "Along with live racing and a 1,200-seat simulcast center, Lone Star also serves up top musical events during night racing." This year's seasons run from April 10 to July 27 and Sept. 26 to Nov. 29. 972-263-7669; lonestarpark.com
Santa Anita Park Arcadia, Calif.
Located just north of Los Angeles, 320-acre Santa Anita Park's oval has a backdrop of palm trees, red tile-roofed homes and the San Gabriel Mountains. "It's quintessential Southern California — right down to the lush paddock gardens that overflow with spectators before every race," Smith-Baranzini says. Racing opens each Dec. 26 and continues through late April. A fall meet runs from late September to early November. 626-574-7223; santaanita.com
Arlington Park Arlington Heights, Ill.
"Less than an hour northwest of Chicago by car, Arlington Park offers patrons a range of lovely interior and terrace dining facilities, as well as lively cabana-party areas and outdoor concerts on its grassy trackside lawns," Smith-Baranzini says. "Toss in the racetrack's grand central stairway and its signature white fences, and Arlington Park stacks up as a handsome and sophisticated racing destination." This year's season starts today and runs through Sept. 21. 847-385-7500; arlingtonpark.com
Keeneland Lexington, Ky.