Not everyone owned automobiles in 1926 when Route 66 was officially designated as a highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. As travelers used the Mother Road to venture west, many did so by horse and carriage.
While classic cars of the 1950s and ’60s have become synonymous with Route 66 today, there are still plenty of opportunities to see some horses run with a handful of race tracks along America’s Main Street.
The first of these is east of St. Louis in Collinsville, Illinois. Fairmount Park is two miles east of the historic Cahokia Mounds and right off Interstate 255. It opened in 1925 and is one of just three horse tracks in Illinois and the only one outside of the Chicago area.
From March to September, the mile-long dirt oval track hosts more than ninety racing events with more than 700 total races. The track offers off-track betting with myriad televisions to follow races at other tracks, or boxing and UFC fights, or college and professional games. More than 120 booths exist at the track to place bets on the on-site races. The grandstand includes suites that are ideal for groups and allow spectators to follow a race in a controlled environment. Most spectators prefer to stand near the track and that standing-room crowd brings the overall capacity up to 12,000.
There are no Missouri horse tracks on Route 66, but a couple in Oklahoma. Will Rogers was and still is a big name for Route 66 travelers. His hometown of Claremore has a track named for him.
The Cherokee Nation-run Will Rogers Downs has a 2,700-seat grandstand for spectators to watch Thoroughbreds in the spring and Quarter Horses in the fall in addition to Appaloosa and Paint horse races on the mile-long track. The attached casino has 250 electronic gaming machines and the complex includes Oklahoma’s largest RV park.
Oklahoma City has a premier horse track in Remington Park, which opened in 1988 and had the first-ever gambling license in Oklahoma. The track is best known for its spring American Quarter Horse season and boasts that is is the “Churchill Downs of Quarter Horses.”
The season’s main event is the Heritage Place Futurity & Derby, held the first weekend in June for 2-year-olds. With a $1 million purse, the race attracts horses from across the nation – especially Kentucky, New York, and California. Another prestigious event on the calendar that brings horses from all corners is the Oklahoma Derby, a thoroughbred race annually held the final Sunday in September.
Albuquerque offers the next opportunity to watch live horse racing. Albuquerque Downs is right along Central Avenue Southeast and has a storied history dating back to 1938. The first races were part of the New Mexico State Fair, and the fairgrounds are still adjacent to the track. The Downs features 34 races each year on its 1-½ mile track. The race season begins in June and is highlighted by $200,000 Downs at Albuquerque Handicap Thoroughbred race in early August, and October’s American Quarter Horse Association Bank of America Challenge Championships.
The best-known track along Route 66 is Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. Santa Anita is a regular host of the Breeders’ Cup, hosting the event eight times between 2003 and 2019. The Breeders’ Cup is just one of several prestigious events the track has hosted since the first Santa Anita Handicap was held in 1935. The Handicap, held every March, is a Grade 1 Thoroughbred race for horses aged four years or older. The Santa Anita Derby, held annually since 1935, is one of the final races before the Kentucky Derby and has a purse of $400,000.
Santa Anita has everything you’d expect from a major horse track – year-round racing, restaurants, betting windows, gallery viewing, and live wagering for races at other tracks. The Art deco facade gives the track a throwback feel as you enter. The long grandstand can seat up to 26,000 spectators with room for another 50,000 on the track infield. The Handicap and Derby regularly draw Hollywood stars, so maybe you’ll rub elbows with a few celebrities while watching the ponies run.