Can Santa Anita be saved? Let’s hope so

Mar 13, 2018 3:10 AM

Santa Anita Park and Stronach Group Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo says the track must make money and cannot survive just because Stronach Group patriarch Frank and his daughter Belinda Stronach love the sport.

What could be clearer than that?

Most horseplayers have a fondness for Santa Anita. Those raised in Southern California usually made their first trip to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains with their father in a father/son or father/daughter cherished bonding experience never to be forgotten.

Southern Nevada horseplayers always enjoy their trips to Del Mar by the ocean near San Diego, but not at the expense of iconic Santa Anita, where the guest experience, often with the aid of VIP Concierge Tom Quigley, is certainly more fan friendly thanks to very reasonable concession pricing, better food and its park-like environment. It also helps that every player is a VIP to the genial denizen of Quigley’s corner.

As Quigley often says, “there’s no such thing as a bad day at the track.” Even though the weather failed to cooperate on my visit Saturday, Tom is right.

It’s worth noting again that Santa Anita Park is revered ground for not only Southern California horseplayers, who can go to the races there often, but also to those in far away, usually colder places, who always fantasize about being there, too. A player peering over the rail on a chilly night at a track in West Virginia or gazing at the penultimate dreary infield from the cold-retentive cinder-block grandstand at Thistledown near Cleveland and elsewhere is usually California dreaming.

Ritvo, a 52-year-old former jockey, who presided over the recent resurgence of Gulfstream Park in Florida, spoke to Steve Byk on his “At the Races” radio program Friday trackside at the Arcadia oval.

Santa Anita has no slot money revenue, as does Gulfstream, and needs its own solution to achieve future growth, he said. According to Ritvo, the middle class of horse owner is endangered as the larger racing stables get bigger and the smaller ones decrease in size. He said fuller fields at Santa Anita can be achieved only by creating an “ecosystem” of breeding, stall space and training facilities as has been achieved in Florida.

This is the path toward increased field sizes, he told Byk. That means the track can continue its rich and glorious history. Although not under threat in the short term, the long-term picture at Santa Anita may be grim without an overhaul.

Santa Anita has advantages Gulfstream doesn’t have including a larger plant and a greater population base, but the sport has not evolved in California the way it might have. He stressed his plan to save the track is to attract a younger demographic group into Santa Anita. He stresses the job will be tough because the failure of horse racing to progress has caused the sport to “miss a generation.”

Ritvo should authorize my suggestion offered in these pages several years ago to send the effervescent former jockey and now analyst Zoe Cadman along with a groom and a former equine champion, such as rags-to-riches, people-friendly superstar Lava Man, out to Southern California grade schools to interest young students in the inherent majesty of the game. Few things are more inspiring to young people than the most regal animal on earth.

Ritvo said the big days for racing are bigger than ever, but it’s the weekdays that need fortifying by having improved regular day race cards to grow the sport. He said casinos have provided a major challenge, but a day at the races can be a family event. If families can be attracted to Santa Anita, the kids may be attracted to the sport.

Ritvo said he wants to increase the dates at Santa Anita for many reasons. He notes any business thrives by hiring good people, but they have to be able to work year round. He said he hopes to take back dates from Los Alamitos because the Santa Anita brand has more cache with gamblers.

“The exact same card would do better here (Santa Anita) than Los Alamitos. The big eastern trainers might be willing to send an up and coming assistant and a string of horses west if Santa Anita had a 10-month schedule. That way, housing for the people and the horses becomes more affordable on a year-round basis as opposed to just a few months a year.

“We need a healthy year-round product,” he said.

Ritvo told Byk, the next best thing to a superstar horse is a well-balanced field, and the Santa Anita Handicap as it was contested Saturday, can still survive with a smaller purse, if it attracts a competitive field.

Ritvo said if the “Big Cap” is not moved, perhaps to opening day (the day after Christmas), it may not be able to survive in its current “dead spot” on the racing calendar. He stressed the track’s most prominent race has to be saved.

I’m hoping Ritvo can make Santa Anita great again and you should be, too.