Signs of RacingThis winter I drove across the country and stopped at 13 racetracks, takingphotographs. Here is my experience, expressed in the signs at racetracks. Theytell a story of horse racing’s history and its present, its beauty and its oddity, and bothoptimism and pessimism about its future.
Racetracks often use historical markers as ways of boosting theirstatus. Here Beulah Park, located just outside of Columbus, Ohio,shows its historic past.
Beulah Downs guides patron traffic to the clubhouse.
I couldn’t tell if the Starting Gate Lounge at Beulah Park was constructed as a no smokingarea or became that way. In any case, the idea about naming something directlyafter something on the racetrack is very common, as is the explicit nature of what ispermitted or not permitted.
The Kentucky Derby has become the horse racing equivalentto the Super Bowl—for racetracks, who know nationalevents might drive people to the track. Beulah Park advertiserstheir party here. [I want to know whether the cookies are “select”or “selected.”] It also suggests a type of demand that only Derby Daybrings—a symbol of horse racing’s status as a whole.
At Turfway Park, there is a plant arrangement of its initials,typical for many racetracks.
Barbaro is horse racing’s most recent anointed horse—both for his racing prowess—he won the Kentucky Derby, and then for tragedy of his breakdown in the Preakness,the optimism of his recovery, and then his tragic death.Racetracks everywhere, even high-level tracks like Churchill Downs, often honorpopular horses. Everywhere Seabiscuit ran, for example, has a monument to him. Barbarocaptured many people’s imaginations, so it is no surprise that the track honoredhim with a statue, even though other horses had more storied careers.
Like Beulah, Churchill has an historic marker, though itsis national. The appeal of history is a crucial part of themodern racetrack’s appeal.
Another example of horse racing’s meta-consciousness regarding their history. Here Churchill Downs prominently displays itshistorical importance—the home of the Kentucky Derby for morethan 130 years.
The Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs shows that horse racinghas a sense of play. Here they display hats, which many tracks now sellas a way of encouraging women to dress up. Women are the most desireddemographic at tracks; even if they are gamblers, tracks think that womenmake the track seem more social rather than just focused on gambling.
At the Kentucky Derby Museum, a take on the old Horatio Alger recipefor the American Dream, “pluck and luck.” Everyone—trainers, jockeys,owners, gamblers—needs both to do well. And implicit in “talent and luck”is the implication that horse racing is a metaphor for the American Dream.
This sign seems a metaphor for racing today—the horse sign mixedwith another type of gambling. It also seems as if this track shouldhave a fancier sign because it has “European-style” racing,a grass racing surface.
At Kentucky Downs, like elsewhere in Kentucky, slotsare illegal. But they have found around it by using oldhorse races as a way of generating randomness for aslot-type machine, which are popular.
As it is at most sports events, drinking—and the combinedpromotion of drinking with location—is often a big part of horse racing.Users of Yelp specifically named this promotion as a reason they cameto Fairmont Park near St. Louis.
Racetracks can be a little sign crazy. “Skybox holders only please!And don’t smoke!” [Fairmont Park]
Now closed, Eureka Downs (in Southeastern Kansas) triedto run a brief horse racing meet without pari-mutuel wagering but it didn’t go over well; General Manager Rita Osborn saidpeople got to the track, wanted to gamble, and said theyfelt misled when they couldn’t.
Notice that “racetrack” is bigger in the signage at The Downsat Albuquerque. It wouldn’t surprise me that if that was aspecific part of the casino-track arrangement to keep the racetrack as the primary occupant even if the casino gets more action.
For some reason, signs seem more prominent at racetracksthan other places. Signs are almost always reactions to something— someone did something “wrong” at some point and the signwas erected. Racetracks are old, and sometimes it feels like one is being scolded for some transgression that one would have no intention of committing.[Downs at Albuquerque]
But is it open July 4th?Signs are like a professor’s syllabus that keeps getting longerbecause of all the transgressions students have committed.[Downs at Albuquerque]
You take the escalator to the club house, and the elevator to the turfclub. The intention is simply to provide direction to clubholders.But it sure seems like a metaphor. [Turf Paradise near Phoenix.]
It’s no surprise that the marketplace comes before racing in thesign—a symbol of racing’s diminishing importance.
These signs at Turf Paradise provide a mixed message in termsof alcohol consumption.
Santa Anita has a type of ornamental detail one does not often find insporting venues. This sign is also indicative of the type of mixed aestheticsof the racetrack—Victorian mixed with LCD display.
Santa Anita’s betting windows look whimsical and fun.Also notice that “Cash” comes before “Bet,” a psychologicaleffort to make bettors think they are going to win.….
Only the cocktails are keeping the luck from running out of theupside-down horseshoe (Santa Anita.)
I love this photo because it sums up so many things about racetracks—the beautiful detail of the window, the littler horses, the font. And then the sign below that gives the racetrack the right to refuse service.Welcome—BUT WATCH IT.
The Shoe—Billy Shoemaker, one of the sport’s greatest jockeys—graces the wall at Santa Anita, another example of the sportacknowledging its history.
This sign says a lot about the diversity of the crowds who come to the racetrack. Notice the three upper class destinations—the two obvious ones, “Turf Club”and “Club House,” and the less obvious one, “Will Call.” Then there are the signsfor MTA buses. Charter buses suggest group tours, likely with seniors. Notice too the landscaping below the sign.
Many racetracks have dress codes. This one for the Vessels Clubat Los Alamitos near Los Angeles seems especially specific.
This sign at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles is typical of many racetracks.Almost all racetracks allow you to move within the racetrack sectionto section, as long as 1) you are properly dressed for the section and 2) pay the fee.
This is the favorite sign I saw on my trip. I love the idea that thereis a study hall for people to sit quietly and study the program. Andit’s interesting that children aren’t allowed to disturb the studying….
One of the things I love about racetracks are the decorativetouches. Here at Hollywood Park, we see horseshoes on thefloor. It reminds us that in the end, that’s it all about the horses.