Santa Anita, under some previous management regimes, announced some paid attendance figures that at times were hard to believe. Let’s call some of those figures optimistic.
While there may have been some patrons going through the turnstiles more than once for the free calendar giveaway on opening day Dec. 26, the announced crowd of 40,023 appeared to be accurate as the parking lot was full and there were families throughout the track enjoying the start of the Santa Anita winter meet.
Here is what they saw.
First and most important – full fields. A total of 86 horses ran on the nine race card for an average of just under 10 horses per race.
They saw the player friendly 14% takeout early Pick Five draw an outstanding handle of over $974,000.
The new late Pick Five wager with a 23.68% takeout drew a respectable $513,701 handle starting in Race 5, while Race 6 kicked off the late Pick Four (same takeout) that guaranteed a pool of $1 million. Total handle for the late Pick Four was $1,435,919.
The new $1 rolling Super High Five bet was somewhat subdued, drawing approximately $2,500 in handle when there was no carryover going into the next race.
They saw jockey Mike Smith win another Grade-I race aboard Unique Bella in the La Brea Stakes, besting the very talented Paradise Woods in the process.
Fellow veteran jockeys Gary Stevens and Kent Desormeaux got into the act, too. Stevens stole the Grade-II San Antonio Stakes, going wire-to-wire aboard Giant Expectations, while Desormeaux gave Bowies Hero a perfect ride to win the grassy Grade-II Mathis Brothers Mile.
Drayden Van Dyke salvaged a Stakes for the younger generation, guiding City of Light gate-to-wire in the Grade-I Malibu.
There was music, an adult beverage festival on the track apron, stuffed animals for the first 4,000 kids, and games and pony rides in the infield.
When all was said and done, Santa Anita had an all sources handle of $17.2 million, a significant increase over their last Tuesday opening day.
Working out the bugs
As can be expected, not everything went smoothly opening day. Not all admission gates were fully staffed, leading to long lines close to first post time of noon. I heard more than one complaint from fans who didn’t get there in time to bet the first race.
Santa Anita track management requested 235 live tellers to man the mutual windows, but only 172 showed up to work opening day. The results were long betting lines for the second half of the opening day card and many patrons complained of getting shut out. There were long lines later in the day at the concession stands.
To his credit, top Stronach Group executive Tim Ritvo called a meeting after opening day to get reports from all departments. He did not want to hear “everything went fine.” He asked for and got honest reports of problems that came up, why they did and who is accountable for correcting them moving forward.
As a long-time racing fan, horseplayer, horse owner, and handicapper, I believe Ritvo and Santa Anita are on the right track being proactive, trying new wagers, and monitoring results not only from the pari-mutuel side but also from the fan experience side. It is the only way to get fans back to the track when there are so many more convenient options available to the horseplayer.
Santa Anita Notes
Trainer Ron Ellis begins a 60-day suspension this week for the positive steroid test on Masochistic after the 2016 Breeders Cup Sprint. The length of the suspension requires Ellis to disband his stable, give up his assigned Santa Anita stalls, remove any signage, and not turn over any of his horses to anyone who has been employed by the Ellis stable within the last year.
Rules are rules, but I believe this is almost a “death sentence” for a trainer who has had no medication violations in the 37 years he has been training. Ellis does not have a reputation as one who tries to take an edge. I hope he is able to re-establish himself on the circuit after he serves his suspension.
The first Maiden Special Weight race restricted to homebreds or horses that cost $100,000 or less at auction was contested New Year’s Day and drew a field of 11 horses. Looks like that condition worked just fine. Let’s see how many horses the next open Maiden race draws at a similar distance over the same surface to see if field size becomes a problem there.
I will miss listening to the stories told by trainer Jack Van Berg from his box seat. Van Berg passed away last week in Arkansas at the age of 81 after battling cancer of the jaw.
D. Wayne Lukas may get the credit as the trainer who established stables across the country, as the old saying “D. Wayne off the plane” suggests. It was Van Berg, however, that was the first to manage stables across the country, flying to multiple cities each week to keep a close personal eye on each string of horses. He was well known to fall asleep from the minute he got on a plane until it was time to get off at his next stop.
Play of the Week
Golden Gate Friday, Jan. 5, Race 8, Power of Nine (post 8): Newly turned 9-year-old mare was protected from being claimed off the layoff in Dec. 2 victory and now gets a confident boost in class. She tends to string good races together.