California boasts one of the richest horse-racing histories in the US.

Authority over horse racing-related matters, including breeding, tax revenues, and pari-mutuel betting, was given to the California Horse Racing Board. General regulations on controlled games, such as poker or Pai Gow, don’t apply to horse race betting as per California Penal Code Section 337j.

The Golden State’s first racetrack was built in Pleasanton (suburban San Francisco) in 1858.

Since then, California has become one of the focal points of American horse racing. It features the world-famous Santa Anita Park, which hosts major annual events like the Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Derby.

The state also houses other notable tracks, including Golden Gate Fields and Del Mar Fairgrounds. Californians enjoy a wide range of live horse racing options and plenty of chances to bet on the action.

The minimum age for pari-mutuel betting in California is 18.

California horse race betting fact sheet

Legal oversight:California Horse Racing Board
On-site betting:Yes
Off-track betting:Yes
Online betting:Third-party platforms and racetrack apps
Betting on out-of-state races:Yes

Is horse race betting legal in California?

California legalized pari-mutuel betting in 1933. Common in horse racing, pari-mutuel wagering places all bets into a pool, and the track takes vigorish (aka juice) as a fee for running the races.

Horse tracks, such as the one in Pleasanton, already existed in California when pari-mutuel betting was legalized. However, this legislation allowed tracks to accept legal wagers on races.

California fairs quickly jumped on this opportunity, with the San Joaquin Fair (Stockton) becoming the first track to take legal wagers in August 1933. In the same calendar year, Bay Meadows, Santa Anita, Pomona Fair and Tanforan also began accepting bets.

The state has never wavered from its stance on legal horse race betting. The only time this industry was disrupted was during World War II when the tracks were needed for military purposes.

In California, most of the gambling action centers around thoroughbred racing. Harness races also run in the state, although they’ve never come close to gaining the same clout as thoroughbred events.

Horse racing has taken a popularity hit in recent years. Fewer people are attending and betting on races in America.

Despite its notable racing scene, California isn’t immune to this squeeze. Multiple tracks have closed in the new millennium, including Bay Meadows, Pomona Fairplex, Solano Fair and Hollywood Park.

The Los Angeles Rams took over the Hollywood Park site as their new home, but they might’ve had to go elsewhere if horse racing were still at its peak.

These closures have led to consolidation and growth at other tracks. Los Alamitos Race Course (Cypress), for example, expanded its track and now fills in some of Pomona’s old race dates.

Golden Gate Fields (Berkeley) and Santa Anita (Arcadia) have also taken over race dates for local tracks that closed down.

California horse racing under fire

Aside from the slowly dwindling popularity, California’s racing industry is also facing backlash from animal rights activists.

A string of racehorse deaths in early 2019 caused activists to come out in full force against the industry. This period was highlighted by 22 deaths within 2.5 months at Santa Anita.

Chuck Winner, who heads the California Horse Racing Board, called this period “the biggest potential crisis that the industry has faced.” The crisis is unlikely to end any time soon.

A potential ballot referendum could outlaw horse racing and its betting industry. Such a measure would require 635,000 signatures to appear on a ballot.

The industry might be safe for now, though, because proponents would need to spend a lot of money to acquire these signatures. Nevertheless, this discussion has put California’s racing interests on notice.

Independent tracks Churchill Downs, the New York Racing Association and the Stronach Group (Santa Anita owner) formed a coalition to improve industry safety. These powerful groups hope to create enough reforms to protect the animals.

California race tracks

California grew to be one of the largest racing hubs in the United States. Those racetracks that hold extended racing meets, such as Cal Expo, Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, Los Alamitos, and Santa Anita, are now known nationwide and generate millions of dollars in annual revenue.

The remaining fairground tracks hold shorter meets in the summer and fall. These meets typically last up to two weeks. Over the years, there have been a few pushes to introduce slots and other gaming machines to California race tracks, but none of those attempts were successful.

The 2004 measure to allow for banking games and slot machines at the biggest facilities failed by 83.8% statewide, which demonstrates that Californians don’t want their race tracks to turn into Delaware-style racinos.

The Golden State is home to some of the most famous racetracks in the US. Some of these tracks boast a rich history that dates back to the 1800s.

Here is a list of racetracks in California:

Big Fresno Fair Racing

The Big Fresno Fair holds live races during a nine-day stint in October. Admission to the grandstand is $5, and bets vary based on the race.

You can check the Big Fresno Fair website at the beginning of October to get exact details on the race schedule and bets.

Cal Expo

Racing in the Sacramento area originally took place at the Sacramento State Fair. A new track was built in 1968 and is now known as the Cal Expo.

This venue offers harness racing, which is rare in California. Races run every Friday and Saturday from November to April.

Del Mar Fairgrounds

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club holds races at the local fairgrounds. Seating 44,000 people, this one-mile track is the second-biggest horse track in the Western US (behind Santa Anita).

Developed by Bing Crosby and a group of actors in the 1930s, Del Mar’s slogan is: “Where the turf meets the surf.” The track holds live racing from July to September and reopens for a few events in November.

Golden Gate Fields

Golden Gate Fields is known for its unique scenery, including views of both the San Francisco skyline and Alcatraz Island. It’s also the only thoroughbred racetrack in Northern California.

Races generally run from December until June and from October until November. However, the schedule can vary from year to year.

Los Alamitos Race Course

Built as a private ranch in 1947, Los Alamitos is known for some of the biggest horse races in the state. Los Alamitos $2 Million Futurity offers the largest purse in California.

This course features year-round racing, and it added more race dates after the nearby Hollywood Park became a strictly OTB facility.

Pleasanton Fairgrounds Racetrack (Alameda County Fairgrounds)

This racetrack was built in 1858 at the Alameda County Fairgrounds. It’s the third-oldest track in the US, behind the Fair Grounds Race Course and Freehold Raceway.

Pleasanton Racetrack only runs a short racing schedule in June and July. However, the lightly used course has offered a few more events ever since Bay Meadows shut down in 2008.

Santa Anita Park

Santa Anita is the premier horse track in California and one of the best in all of America. It’s the biggest track in the state, seating 85,000 people.

This course hosts several prominent races, including the Breeders’ Cup, Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Derby.

Off track betting in CA

OTB refers to horse race bets accepted at off-track locations, i.e., businesses that are licensed and sanctioned to take such bets.

Hollywood Park, also where the Rams play, is an off-track betting facility. While it no longer offers live races, Hollywood Park can still accept wagers on races happening elsewhere in the state.

OTB offers multiple benefits to the racing industry.

Firstly, it serves as a convenient option for gamblers who don’t live near a horse track. These racing enthusiasts can visit the closest OTB parlor instead of traveling to a distant venue.

Another benefit is that off-track locations help increase the industry’s overall revenue. OTB parlors and racetracks share in the revenue generated from off-track gambling.

Off-track betting in California is available at 27 satellite facilities, which are all located in the south and central parts of the state. Some of these simulcast venues are small and can be compared to a pub in size, while others, like the San Mateo Events Center, are large and can pack a small crowd inside.

Unfortunately, California doesn’t run any legal online betting sites. If you want to bet your money on a horse, you need to do it on-site or at a licensed off-track betting facility.

CA online horse betting

Most forms of online gambling aren’t inherently legal in the US.

At the moment, the federal government allows states to determine the legality of online bingo, casino games and poker.

Online horse betting, in contrast, is legal in most states, including California. This activity is even exempt from the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA).

The UIGEA makes it illegal for gambling businesses to accept payments related to unlawful wagering. Horse racing was given an exemption to prevent legality issues with off-track and simulcast betting.

Simulcast betting is placing wagers on races happening at different tracks across North America. Simulcast rooms feature multiple races broadcasted across several TV monitors.

California residents can engage in advance deposit wagering through several legal third-party platforms, such as TVG, TwinSpires, XpressBet, BetAmerica, WatchandWager, Bbspot Racing, and NYRA Bets. These platforms are officially recognized by the California Horse Racing Board and are listed on its website.

In addition, individual California race tracks are permitted to offer betting services over the internet as long as they employ geolocation. For example, the Del Mar Mobile App allows users to place wagers while on-track, but this functionality is disabled elsewhere. The app is also useful off-track as its features include on-demand race replays, live odds, betting calculators, and more.