Pony Up at Striders

Striders OTB in downtown San DiegoEat, drink and bet the ponies at Striders

When I lived in Manhattan there were several OTBs on my midtown walk between home and work. Off-Track Betting sites are places you can legally wager on horse racing. In the Big Apple, these were seedy establishments where unshaven men in cabbie hats and gray trench coats studied betting sheets while standing on floors littered with losing tickets. These joints were highly avoidable. But the opening of a high-end OTB in downtown San Diego—with upscale bars and an impressive menu of food and drinks—drew me in like a moth to a streetlight.

Striders (100 Harbor Drive) is a hybrid eatery/gaming place unlike anything I’ve seen outside a casino. And most casino horse racing parlors aren’t this posh. The primary owner is an international entity based in the United Kingdom called Sportech. The company has a chain of 15 locations in Connecticut—some OTBs and some sports bars. Striders is the first of its kind in California, says the company’s state managing director, Phil Balderamos.

Striders opened its doors on October 29 but a grand opening isn’t planned until mid-January. The two-story location, at the base of the west tower of The Harbor Club condominiums, is immense. But its predecessors (Galileo 101, Seven) couldn’t show that it’s a spot built for long-term success. What could be different now?

“You need a hook for people to come here and we’ve got that in the horse racing and gambling component,” says Balderamos. “That along with good food and cocktails and space for people to hold special events. Yes, we’re not on Fifth Avenue. We’re not in the hustle and bustle of the Gaslamp. But we think that’s helpful to not be in the mix of the twentysomething bachelorette parties over there.”

Executive chef Rodrigo Campos, formerly of Truluck’s in UTC, runs the kitchen at Striders. He’s serving American fare with seasonal California flair. The first thing out of the gate on the appetizer list is crispy risotto rice balls, with creamy fresh mozzarella, black garlic basil and fra diavolo sauce. A near-unanimous staff recommendation is the grilled certified Angus burger, which is prepared with caramelized pork belly, pickled jalapenos and sautéed Maui onions.

I’m not wild about the price points for some entrees (up into $30), but the Happy Hour deals are manageable. Every day from 3 to 6 p.m. craft beers on draft are $5; selected appetizers are $6; and special craft cocktail are $7.

Included in the Happy Hour cocktails is the Triple Crown of drinks, named after horse racing’s annual big whoop. There’s a mint julep (the official bourbon-based drink of the Kentucky Derby); a black-eyed Susan (Vodka, St. Germain, The Preakness); and a Belmont Breeze (Knob Creek rye, sherry, the Belmont Stakes).

Betting on the ponies is done on the upstairs floor (downstairs is all-ages; the second floor is 21-and-up). I found the attendant behind the betting desk extremely helpful in showing an intermediate novice how to place bets. There’s even a machine that will print out the Daily Racing Form from the Del Mar track, and from selected tracks around the country. In the evening after U.S. tracks go dark you can still bet on horses racing in Australia. All the racing action can be viewed on any one of the 172 televisions (not a typo) up on the walls.

Striders is a slice of Las Vegas set up in the 92101. The project is ambitious and not for low budgets. It’s not your father’s OTB.

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