Updated on 09/17/2011 11:18AM

Which is best: Del Mar or Spa?

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Rivalry between the East and the West has existed in horse racing ever since the days of Seabiscuit. Today the sport has become more homogenized, but there is still one issue that polarizes racing fans on the opposite coasts: the relative merits of Saratoga and Del Mar.

For more than a century, people in the East have regarded Saratoga, with its elegance and tradition, as the perfect racetrack. The late turf writer Joe Palmer said that "Saratoga represents a reaffirmation of racing as enjoyment." And he declared: "Anyone who would change it would stir champagne."

Most Californians share the enthusiastic opinion of author William Murray, who wrote in "The Wrong Horse" of seeing Del Mar for the first time: "This was unlike any racetrack I had been to before; it was a celebration of the golden California lifestyle."

Because the racing seasons at the two tracks overlap, the loyalists of one almost never visit the other. They simply assume that nothing can be better than their favorite track.

Which is the better place? After spending the first two weeks of August in Del Mar and the last two in Saratoga, I am prepared to venture an opinion - even at the risk of alienating half of the racing world. This is the way I compare them in different categories:

The Ambiance

The character of the two racing resorts is very different. Del Mar retains the flavor of a beach community even during the racing season. In the famous description by the track's late publicist Eddie Read, it is a place "where nobody is in a hurry but the horses." People in Del Mar are almost as likely to have a surfboard under their arms as a copy of Daily Racing Form. The track crowd seems to melt into the community at large after the races are finished.

Saratoga, by contrast, is totally obsessed by horse racing; everybody comes here for the sport. At any restaurant, bar, hotel, or convenience store, the races will be the prime topic of conversation, and the talk will go on long into the night at the main local watering holes.

At the venerable Wishing Well restaurant, a slightly inebriated patron in the crowded dining room rose from his seat and loudly launched into a track announcer's call of a mythical race involving Secretariat, Citation, Seabiscuit, and other famous horses. Anywhere else in the civilized world, patrons would have yelled at the loudmouth to sit down and shut up. At the Wishing Well, they applauded.

This is a community of people who understand each other's passion. Everywhere else they're part of a quirky minority; here they are in the mainstream.

Whether one prefers the intensity of Saratoga or the laid-back feel of Del Mar is a strictly a matter of personal preference. But, other aspects of the two racing resorts permit head-to-head comparison.

The Racing

Saratoga's card on Monday included a Grade 3 stakes, a top class allowance race, and three 12-horse fields - and this was a weak program by the Spa's standards.

On the same afternoon, Del Mar ran eight races, mostly for claiming horses; only one field had more than eight starters. The programs typified the difference between the tracks.

While Saratoga offers the top-class racing in America, Del Mar is afflicted by the California curse: too many short fields. Though the racing at Del Mar this summer has been more interesting and competitive than in recent years, even the track's loyalists look enviously at the Saratoga racing product.

The Track

I love to walk through the old, wooden Saratoga grandstand when it is empty in the early morning; it is easy to imagine being here in the era of Man o' War or Seabiscuit. But when the masses arrive and the racing begins, a day at Saratoga can be an ordeal. Crowds of 30,000 or more are commonplace, and they overwhelm a track that has fewer than 11,000 seats in the building. Saratoga has coped with its popularity by expanding its grounds into a gigantic picnic area, but it is a trying place for a horseplayer who wants comfort and space to spread out a Racing Form.

Del Mar's grandstand, with its pretty Spanish-Mission architecture, has no history; it was built in the 1990's because the old facility couldn't handle the large crowds it attracted. The new Del Mar is spacious, comfortable, and efficient. For day-to-day racegoing, I prefer those virtues to Saratoga's history.

The Community

Red Smith's directions for getting to Saratoga were to take the Adirondack Northway to exit 14, turn onto Union Avenue, and go back 100 years. The grand old houses on Union Avenue evoke the era when high-rollers like Bet-A-Million Gates and Diamond Jim Brady resided here. But staying in Saratoga is rarely a quaint and charming experience. This is a college town that gussies itself up for the season and jacks up the prices.

Del Mar is an upscale beach community year-round, with an infrastructure of good rental units, hotels, and superior restaurants. I studied the Racing Form this summer as I looked out on the Pacific Ocean crashing into the shore, and my oceanfront apartment rented for less than some Saratoga motel rooms with parking-lot views.

The Climate

Del Mar's weather is so dependable that the condition of the track is never posted or announced; it is always fast, because the sun is almost always shining and the temperature always around 80 degrees. Weather is Saratoga's bane. The first half of this year's meet was marred by rain that caused a torrent of scratches and cancellation of turf races. When the rain wasn't falling, the heat and humidity were often oppressive. Even people who love Saratoga were left in a state of depression.

The Best Racetrack

There was a time when the quality of racing at Saratoga overrode any of its defects. I came here regularly for 25 years. But in the age of simulcasting, horseplayers can watch or bet races from home or from another track; patrons at Saratoga can play the Del Mar races and vice versa. The main reason to go to a racetrack, live, is for the pleasure of that track.

Because of the sunshine, the ocean, the ambiance, and the comfort of the facility, there is no place in the racing world more pleasant that Del Mar.

Even so, all racing fans should experience both tracks.

They should visit Del Mar at the start of the season, when the quality of the day-to-day racing is at its best - the small fields are more prevalent late in the meet. They should go to Saratoga at the end of the season. The crowds thin out after the Travers Stakes is run on the penultimate Saturday, and the weather has begun to cool. With this bi-coastal itinerary horseplayers can experience the best of both worlds.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post