Chris McCarron faces countless challenges in his new role as general manager at Santa Anita, one of the most important of which is to put people in the seats.
With weekday crowds hovering at 4,000 and anything over 13,000 considered decent on weekends, Santa Anita faces the same puzzling problem as other Southern California tracks: how to increase the stagnant, if not dwindling, on-track fan base.
In the old days, it wouldn’t have paid for tracks of vast expanse such as Santa Anita and Hollywood Park to open the doors for a paltry gathering of 4,000. But that was before satellite wagering. Simulcasting is the tail that wags the dog now, so tracks have no choice. They made their bed. They must lie in it.
"The industry has given fans plenty of reason not to come to Santa Anita," said the 48-year-old McCarron, who assumed his duties as vice president and general manager on March 31, after a brilliant riding career of nearly three decades and 7,141 victories.
"There’s home betting, Internet betting, ADW (advance deposit wagering), inter-track wagering. We’ve been forced to provide more convenience for the fans to participate. In doing so, we’ve given them reason to stay away from Santa Anita.
"What we have to do is make coming to Santa Anita a happy and memorable experience every time someone comes here. If a person is at home in Pasadena (a stone’s throw from the track) deciding whether or not to go to the races at Santa Anita and enjoy the nice weather and the atmosphere of live racing, and they’ve had an enjoyable experience when they’ve come to Santa Anita in the past, then they’re going to attend. If not, they’re going to bet on the phone and watch the races on TV."
McCarron knows Rome wasn’t built in a day. He diligently has been making the rounds at all facets of the track, establishing a working foundation and setting priorities.
"I’m open to suggestions," he said. "When I hear from employees, I try to decipher constructive complaints from those that should be filtered out. I’m trying to establish a foundation I can work from in order to make Santa Anita a more attractive place to visit."
McCarron has just left the starting gate on his new endeavor, and, as in his racing days, is in a good position. The finish line is far, far ahead, but he is confident of victory.
HOMESTRETCH: Laffit Pincay Jr. said that by the end of this month, he would decide to retire or resume riding. The 56-year-old jockey, who has won more races than any rider in history, 9,530, has been wearing a halo cast since March 6, after suffering two fractures in a bone in his neck in a spill on March 1. While Pincay still has a passion for riding and no hobbies to speak of (he exercises assiduously but does not golf, as many riders do; his idea of diversion from racing is walking the mall or going to a movie), common sense and his family say he should retire, even if MRI’s and his doctors clear him to ride. "My family definitely wants me to quit," Pincay said, "and a lot of doctor friends of mine gave me their opinion, but I’m just going to wait and see at the last minute. When I take the halo off and I talk to the doctor, I don’t want to get my hopes up that everything’s going to be OK."
. . . Veteran agents Tony Matos and Ivan Puhich, on legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham, who died four years ago on April 20 at age 86: "He was always at the barn with his horses," said Matos, who books mounts for Victor Espinoza and Jose Valdivia Jr., "not like today, when some trainers train the owners instead of training the horses." Added Puhich, who handles Tyler Baze: "Charlie Whittingham was unique. He reminded me of one other trainer, Buster Millerick. They were old school. They trained their horses, and if their owners gave them any crap, they were out of the barn. No one ever told Charlie Whittingham what to do."
. . . Buddy Gil, unbeaten in three starts under trainer Jeff Mullins, still gets no respect, especially after the final three furlongs of his Santa Anita Derby victory was clocked in 39 seconds and change and his final time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:49.36, nearly four seconds off the track record. Mullins, asked if he watched rival 3-year-olds Empire Maker, Peace Rules and 56-1 longshot Sir Cherokee win the Wood, the Blue Grass and the Arkansas Derby, said he had, but couldn’t resist a parting shot: "If they’re bitching about slow times, there’re a bunch of them right there." Asked if he had reservations about Buddy Gil’s chances of winning the Derby, since no gelding has won since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929, Mullins said, "You can’t put ”˜em back, and we’re not gonna stay home."
Southern California-based 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown Trail
Rated by ED GOLDEN
Horse Trainer Next Race Comment
1 Empire Maker Frankel May 3 Ky. Derby Frankel completes resume
2 Peace Rules Frankel Kentucky Derby Frankel vs. Frankel
3 Midas Eyes Frankel Saturday’s Derby Trial Frankel wasn’t greedy
4 Buddy Gil Mullins Kentucky Derby No mistakes under Mullins
5 Ten Most Wanted W. Dollase Kentucky Derby Gaining momentum
6 Atswhatimtalknbout Ellis Kentucky Derby Stranger things happened
7 Kafwain Baffert Kentucky Derby Best of Baffert’s bullpen
8 Indian Express Baffert Kentucky Derby Gives Tyler a brief thrill