By Britney Grover
One million dollars: one of the biggest grand prix prizes available in the U.S. and the star of the HITS Coachella Desert Circuit held each year in Thermal, California. The 2017 HITS Desert Series began January 17 and will conclude with the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on March 19, but watching top jumper riders compete for the cash isn’t the only reason to attend the series: the Thermal and Palm Springs area might just provide a vacation worth a million bucks.
The Desert Series is celebrating its 10th year in the Coachella location, and trainer Traci Brooks has been in attendance each and every year. “I rode as a kid, I rode at summer camp when I was little, then my parents got me lessons, and then it progressed into getting a pony, and it went that way,” Traci said of getting her start in horses. “I think I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be a professional. I was one of those kids that spent all day at the barn, and summers at the barn, and rode anything I could.”
Traci and her husband, hunter rider and judge Carleton Brooks, operate Balmoral Farm, with locations in Malibu and Brentwood, in west Los Angeles. Their clients range from children and adults just starting out in walk-trot all the way through winning at indoors and national championships. “Coachella is very exhibitor-friendly and a very nice place to show,” Traci said. “For us it’s only two hours away, so we feel very spoiled to have it so close.”
As a 10-year veteran, Traci is a qualified guide to the Coachella Valley, which is home to major music festivals like Coachella, Stagecoach, and Desert Trip, bringing over 70,000 visitors each week to Empire Polo Club in Indio. “During the winter months polo is huge,” said Traci, “and you can watch games at Empire every Sunday, if you’re not showing! While you’re at it, get a bite to eat or a beverage at the Tack Room Tavern.”
But Traci’s destination list starts with the show itself. “My favorite place for lunch is the VIP at the horse show, because I never get to leave!” she said with a laugh. “The VIP is amazing. But if I have a day off, I like Old Town Coffee Company in Old Town La Quinta, which is great. They have the best homemade muffins. They’re good for coffee, muffins, salads and sandwiches.”
Less than a 20-minute drive west from Thermal, La Quinta is also home to La Quinta Resort & Club, with restaurants like Traci’s Mexican go-to, Adobe Grill. “I always tell people to stay at La Quinta Resort, because it’s super convenient to the horse show especially. They have great restaurants there, and it’s kind of central to everything — other restaurants and shopping as well. All of our clients love staying at La Quinta.”
And why not? La Quinta Resort has been popular since its creation in the 1920s as a hacienda-style getaway. After a multi-million dollar restoration and enhancements, the resort combines the old-time look and feel of the desert with modern amenities. Enjoy views of the Santa Rosa Mountains beside any one of 41 pools, or explore the 45-acre property with championship golf courses, a premier spa, seven top restaurants, tennis courts and more.
Ready to get more bang for your buck? “Shopping is fun at the huge outlet mall at Cabazon,” Traci said. “It’s one of the biggest outlet malls — you could be there for days and never see everything. That’s a fun adventure, about 40 minutes away from the horse show.” Cabazon is home to both the Desert Hills Premium Outlets, featuring stores like Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Polo Ralph Lauren Factory Store and Prada, as well as the Cabazon Outlets, with outlets for Puma, Under Armour, Guess, Adidas and more.
“Then there’s El Paseo in Palm Desert, a walking street with great boutiques and a few department stores,” Traci added. El Paseo is a mile-long shopping district boasting over 300 shops, restaurants, art galleries and more. Plus, if you happen to be in town, say, for the $1 Million Grand Prix, you won’t want to miss Fashion Week El Paseo at The Gardens on El Paseo. Top designers from around the country bring their cutting-edge glamour to the largest fashion show on the West Coast, complete with trunk shows.
When it comes to attractions, Palm Springs can’t be oversold. “The Aerial Tramway is amazing,” said Traci. As the world’s largest rotating tramcars, the 10-minute, 2.5-mile upward journey covers 6,000 feet in elevation while enjoying 360-degree views of Chino Canyon. The Mt. San Jacinto State Park welcomes visitors at the top with two restaurants, observation decks, a natural history museum, documentary theaters, gift shops and over 50 miles of hiking trails. “It can be 100 degrees at normal ground, and you go to the top of the mountain and there’s snow, so that’s really cool.”
Other attractions Traci recommends include The Living Desert, where guests can enjoy exhibits of desert plants and animals ranging from local wildlife to endangered African animals, and the Palm Springs Air Museum, home to one of the largest collections of flyable WWII aircraft as well as exhibits from the Korea and Vietnam Wars. “Also, just Palm Springs in general, like the shops in downtown Palm Springs, where there’s a lot of post-modern architecture. Some of the old hotels in Palm Springs, just to go see them sort of takes you back to the ’50s and it’s very ‘rat pack,’ that’s fun, too.”
If it’s throwback you’re looking for, be sure to check out Cunard’s Sandbar Restaurant in La Quinta or The Nest in nearby Indian Wells, both featuring live music. “They’re both really retro,” Traci said. “You see young people and really old people dancing and listening to music, and it’s a scene that’s really fun.” Speaking of retro, Traci didn’t need to think twice about her favorite cocktail destination. “Cactus Jack’s Bar and Grill in Indio — the best! They make the best drinks. They make them kind of old school and strong. The bar area at Cactus Jack’s hasn’t been remodeled in probably 40 years, so it’s very retro, I’d say, and very fun.”
For dinner, Traci loves the casual fine dining at Cork & Fork in La Quinta, where small plates and affordable wines fuel their “Mix, Match, Mingle & Enjoy” motto. “I also like Okura Robata Grill, which is Japanese and sushi, as well as La Quinta Cliffhouse. LG’s is a great steakhouse, and Cactus Jack’s has great prime rib in a more casual setting.”
But when attending the Desert Series, be sure to save room for dessert. “You have to have a date shake while you’re here, that’s another thing,” Traci added firmly. “That’s a Desert thing. You have to have a date shake from either Shields Date Garden or Hadley Fruit Orchards. Those are fun things that are specific to the Desert.”
Enjoy the warmth of the sun at HITS Desert Horse Park with your date shake in hand. “The facility is amazing, and they make improvements to it every year. I love that they keep improving it with everything from footing to landscaping to air conditioning the VIP. There’s always somewhere to teach a lesson and ride, which is great, and the staff is super accommodating, always. That’s why we love it, and our clients and horses love it.”