This San Gabriel Valley 'staycation' for the holidays includes a night at the lavish Langham

I panic when out-of-state visitors descend during the holidays. How will I keep them busy? To quell my fears, I spent a weekend earlier this month testing an itinerary, which is how I ended up at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia early one morning as several million dollars' worth of thoroughbred horses loped around the scenic track. My staycation began with Clockers' Corner, a longtime Santa Anita tradition where you can have breakfast, mingle with jockeys and owners and watch some of America's best horses work out. Next up was a pleasant stroll through the grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden and a holiday shopping spree at its great gift shop. The tab for my two-day trip was $365, including $259 (not including taxes and fees) for a night at the iconic Langham Huntington hotel in nearby Pasadena.

The bed

The Langham, which celebrated its 100th birthday last year, is a California landmark. The elegant hotel has 23 acres of manicured grounds, impressive holiday décor and fun Christmas traditions such as the Teddy Bear Tea, held specifically for kids. I also checked out the Chuan Spa, which underwent a major renovation during the summer and now offers treatments based on traditional Chinese medicine. I ran out of time to try it, but put it on my list for my next visit (1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena; [626] 568-3900, www.langhamhotels.com).

The meal

Breakfast was at Clockers' Corner, famous for its fast, inexpensive omelets, huevos rancheros and other morning fare, all of which are priced at less than $8. And beginning Saturday, free coffee for anyone who stops by. The nook is open while the horses are working out, 4:30 to 10 a.m. In keeping with my weekend racing theme, I also took a step back in time and visited the Derby Restaurant, where track memorabilia, traditional steakhouse décor and menu items with names such as Seabiscuit's Favorite, give the dining room flavor. I arrived during happy hour (3 to 7 p.m. daily except Saturday) and scored several deals, such as the restaurant's excellent Derby Cobb salad, a bargain at $10 instead of the usual $16. Dinner entrees range from $24 to $58. (233 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia; [626] 447-8173, www.thederbyarcadia.com).

The find

Santa Anita, which begins its 63-day winter meet Dec. 26, is a California original. Set against the San Gabriel Mountains, the track's Art Deco facade and iconic, 80-foot Washingtonia palms are known throughout the racing world. Visitors can get a taste for free at Clockers' Corner, where you may be as lucky as I was and run into racing giant Bob Baffert, trainer of American Pharoah, which won the Triple Crown earlier this year. "Why do you like working with horses?" I asked the amiable Santa Anita regular. "Because they try hard and they don't talk back," Baffert answered. Clockers' Corner is dog-friendly and open year-round, with most of the action between 7 and 10 a.m. Visitors can take the family-friendly Seabiscuit Tour, also free, which visits the stables, barn, paddock gardens, jockeys room and carriage horses housed under the grandstands. There are tram tours at 8:30 and 9:45 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday during the track's racing seasons. Admission to the track for races is $5 general, $10 clubhouse. (285 W. Huntington Drive, Arcadia; [626] 574-7223, [626] 574-6677 for Seabiscuit Tour, www.santaanita.com).

Lesson learned

The 127-acre Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden is just across the street from Santa Anita and offers a chance to stroll among plants, natural landscapes, wildlife — peacocks are plentiful — and historic buildings. A journey through the gardens is a great place to discover plants and trees from all over the world. The gift shop is a favorite stop here, especially during the holiday season. The Arboretum is open daily except Christmas Day; admission is $9 for adults, $6 for seniors and students, $4 for children 5 to 12. (The Arboretum, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; [626] 821-3222, www.arboretum.org).

travel@latimes.com

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