Rick Hammerle grew up in Southern California knowing the importance of Dec. 26 on the racing calendar. The traditional opening day for Santa Anita Park coincided with his birthday, and on more than a few occasions he would celebrate at the Arcadia track on opening day with his family.
A graduate of the University of Arizona Racetrack Industry Program, Hammerle interned at Golden Gate Fields, then headed east, working at New Jersey and Florida tracks before returning to the Golden State in 2000. He currently serves as vice president of racing and racing secretary for Santa Anita Park. He spoke with the Paulick Report several days before Wednesday's opening day.
How does the entry box look for the first few days of the meeting?
Fantastic. We expect that after a 10-day break, which is the greatest thing as far as I'm concerned. In general, since Dec. 26 a year ago, the entries in Southern California have done rather well. We've had good meet after good meet, and I think we're heading in the right direction. We've zeroed in on this four-day week thing. After experimenting with a few five-day weeks, it doesn't work. We're sticking to four days a week, barring a holiday day or two.
What's the overall horse population now compared with a year ago?
I'm going to say it's no worse, which is probably the first time in a while we can say that. Numbers are probably heading up, as opposed to heading down. I'm very comfortable with the horse population. The economy is swinging around a little bit, too. The feeling out there is a lot more positive than it's been. Clockers Corner has been a lot more upbeat as opening day has approached.
What's new or different this year vs. 2011-12, in either the overnights or stakes program?
Not much, because last year we did the tweaking. Our 3-year-old program is strong, and lo and behold we had I'll Have Another go through that program and win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. We are not going to mess with that. (The Grade 3 Sham at a mile is on Jan. 5; G2 Robert B. Lewis at 1 1/16 miles is on Feb. 2; G2 San Felipe at 1 1/16 miles is on March 9; and the G1 Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles is on April 6.)
We did move the Santa Anita Oaks a little later in the meet (at 1 1/16 miles on April 6). It will be California's final prep for the Kentucky Oaks. We streamlined a little last year. There were too many races in certain categories – less horses means less races. We may have to streamline more in years to come. Our schedule has been pretty steadfast for a long time. There's no need to change for change's sake.
Any new major stables this year?
This is the third year for Steve Asmussen, and he came earlier than ever because of the Breeders' Cup being at Santa Anita in November. He started shipping horses here in September. I've seen a lot more horses that have been shipped in to other people that already have stalls. We are coming back. Santa Anita has always been a great spot. I think it's the best turf course in the country, and the main track has settled down after a decade of ‘what have we got this year?' The crew has a handle on the dirt track now.
The Strub and La Canada series have great history, but is it practical to keep these races that are strictly for 4-year-olds? I notice the El Encino Stakes for 4-year-old fillies is gone this year.
Here's the deal with that. Last year we were looking at making some changes. That was the first thing we looked at, the 4-year-old races. But the San Fernando has a full field every year. The Strub Stakes handles it well. We couldn't really get rid of those races. The filly division had the same mirrored races for fillies. That division was a little weaker, so we took the El Encino out. Every year you get a couple of calls from out-of-state stables for those races. It hasn't gotten to the point where it's time for them to go, and they've been there for so long. We do look at how it affects the 4 and up races, but it gives those 3-year-olds turning 4 a different avenue to take. It's only a couple of races. It gives them a little more confidence to run against their own age group.
What excites you the most about Santa Anita opening day?
First of all, I'm a fan. I just happen to work at the racetrack. Dec. 26 is also my birthday, and when I think back to the days when my Mom said, ‘What do you want to do on your birthday?' I said, ‘Let's go to the track.'
On days when you don't feel the greatest, you take a walk out to Clockers' Corner, and you say, ‘Now that's cool.' Santa Anita has always been my favorite track.
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