Hot tips on California's premier racetracks
California is home to more racetracks than any other state, with four dominant tracks and a dozen lesser venues, such as state fairs, where thoroughbreds line up shoulder to shoulder. The majors tend to be tributes to Old California. Each of the Big Four has its own bloodlines and vibe. As Santa Anita holds its fall season, and Hollywood Park and Golden Gate Fields follow soon, here's a look at what makes them distinct and how to get the most for your money — at least till it comes to betting the trifecta.

Santa Anita Park, Arcadia

Racetracks have the best ambience of any venues in sports, and Santa Anita Park is Exhibit A. This track is a LeRoy Neiman painting sprung to life. The picturesque venue is best known for being the home of the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit. It has had a role in many Hollywood hits and will be featured in the upcoming HBO series "Luck."

Seasons: Sept. 30-Nov. 6, Dec. 26-April 22.

Getting there: Thirty minutes from downtown Los Angeles and 45 minutes from LAX.

Inside tips: At Clocker's Corner, racing fans can watch early-morning workouts and mingle with the jockeys, trainers and owners as they work their horses. Sessions run 4:45-10 a.m., but prime time is 7-8:30 a.m. Concessions sell breakfast and coffee.

Need a post-race beverage? The Derby, just a few furlongs off the track, is a classic steakhouse and drinking trough and draws crowds of Santa Anita horsemen. 233 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia; (626) 447-2430,

Need a steak? Pasadena's Arroyo Chop House has great cuts of beef. Dinners from about $40; 536 Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena;(626) 577-7463, The track's mouthpiece, Mike Willman, also recommends Callahan's in Azusa, a friendly joint that serves a nice slab of prime rib and features a convivial bar. Dinners from about $15; 200 S. Irwindale Ave., Azusa; (626) 334-5532.

Other hangouts: For a neighborhood vibe and a wide-ranging menu, try Nikki C's. Dinners from about $20; 470 S. Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 792-7437, The racing crowd also gives high marks to Matt Denny's for its well-priced burgers and $15.95 tri-tip platter; 145 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia; (626) 462-0250,

Lodging choices: The grounds at the Langham Huntington, formerly the Ritz-Carlton, feel like an extension of Santa Anita. Rooms from $170; 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena; (626) 568-3900, DoubleTree Inn is more affordable though significantly less memorable. Rooms from $122; 924 W. Huntington Drive, Monrovia; (626) 357-1900,

Hollywood Park, Inglewood

This former Hollywood hangout burned down in 1949, was rebuilt in 1950 and in 1951 hosted racing's first $1-million horse, Citation. It's still vibrant, as seen when it hosted

Zenyatta's 19th straight win last year.

Season: Nov. 10-Dec. 18.

Getting there: 10-minute cab ride from LAX; 20-30 minutes from downtown.

Insider tips: Hollywood Park is popular for its night racing, rarely available at other tracks. Concerts follow the races on some nights.

Need a post-race beverage? Pancho's in Manhattan Beach is a great place to watch sports and drink margaritas with friends. Or grab brunch before the races. Brunch from $16.95; 3615 Highland Ave.; (310) 545-6670,

Need a steak? For a classic steak or seafood, try the Buggy Whip. Better cuts of beef start at about $30, which includes chowder or salad and sides; 7420 La Tijera Blvd., Westchester; (310) 645-7131,

Other hangouts: Paco's Tacos in Westchester makes tortillas fresh all day long, entrees less than $10; 6212 W. Manchester Ave.; (310) 645-8692. Coffee Co. serves good affordable breakfasts, crepes and home-style food; 8751 La Tijera Blvd., Westchester; (310) 645-7315.