Can Gene Simmons really make Santa Anita ‘the coolest place on earth’?

by | 12.27.2012 | 1:32pm

“The past is magical and the present is all going to change. We're going to get Brad and Angelina out here. They're all going to come here because it is going to be the coolest place on earth.” –  Gene Simmons, KISS rock band member, reality TV star, entrepreneur, consultant to the Stronach Group in a video shot at Santa Anita Park opening day, Dec. 26, 2012.

Well, so much for under-promising and over-delivering.

There was a time, and not so long ago, that movie and television stars were regulars at Southern California racetracks. During the 1980s when I lived in the Los Angeles area and worked at Daily Racing Form, Fay Wray (actress from the original King Kong) was a turf club regular, along with actor Mickey (“let's put on a show”) Rooney, and Don (Get Smart) Adams. Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple, Quincy), Dick Van Patten (Eight Is Enough), Vic Tayback (Alice), Vince Edwards (Ben Casey), and Al Lewis (The Munsters) were more habitués of the box seats or the grandstand on an ongoing basis.

Lewis and Adams even often did “doubleheaders,” going from the afternoon Thoroughbred races to the night-time harness races across town.

Occasional racetrack visitors included superstars Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant, comedian Richard Pryor and singer Marvin Gaye (and I know I'm forgetting some big names). On any given day you could walk to the top of the stretch and find the old poet and novelist, Charles Bukowski, shuffling around, a coffee cup in one hand and a Daily Racing Form tucked under his arm.

These celebrities often got lost in the crowd because there were crowds. In 1984-85, daily average attendance at Santa Anita Park's 89-day meeting was 32,902 (not a typo). A day at the races was a day to escape. Pay phones were locked up before the first race, there were no cell phones, pagers, or Internet. There was no simulcasting. It was one race every 30 minutes, win-place-show wagering, one daily double, a couple of exactas, a pick six – and that was it. There was plenty of time to study the past performances and see the horses in the paddock.

Gene Simmons won't be able to roll back everything to the 1980s, but if he can convince more celebrities to come out for a day of racing (without being paid an appearance or consulting fee), that would be a welcome development.

I hope he can do it.

I'm not quite sure I get the whole Gene Simmons attraction. I like music, so I was never exposed to KISS recordings or concerts when they hit it big in the 1970s. I also don't watch reality shows, so I'm not sure what “Gene Simmons: Family Jewels” adds to our culture.

I do understand his popularity to an extent, so realize that Simmons and his bandmates on KISS have a huge following. For example, at last count, @GeneSimmons has 414,687 followers on Twitter (including me, now). He could convince a lot of people to give a day of racing a try by having his “Tweet Team” send out a message, something he didn't do for Santa Anita's opening day.

Simmons did go on a Los Angeles morning news talk show and promote Thoroughbred racing, Santa Anita Park, and its owner, Frank Stronach. Simmons did the same thing a few years ago when Stronach launched “Frank's Energy Drink,” a rival to Red Bull that didn't succeed. They have some history, as does Simmons and Stronach's daughter, Belinda, having formed a Canadian record company together some years ago.

Simmons and a marketing partner were hired previously to inject some life into another struggling sport, the Indy Racing League that puts on the Indianapolis 500 and other races during the year.

He was brought on board in January 2006, the year after the Indy 500 television telecast drew a 6.6 overnight rating. Despite a marketing campaign that included a song Simmons wrote specifically for the sport (“I Am Indy”), the Indy 500 overnight ratings dropped to 5.2 in 2006 and 4.8 in 2007.  (Here is a video of Simmons explaining how a switch to ethanol fuel would change the public's perception of Indy Car racing, and another video where he describes the meaning of the slogan and song “I Am Indy.”)

The Indy Racing League hasn't caught on fire, but you can't blame Simmons or his song. A destructive battle between two organizations in the sport occurred as NASCAR racing was ascending in popularity, and the Indy 500 and Indy Racing League are now also-rans to stock car races like the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

I'm going to give the man a chance. Who knows, maybe he'll write a signature song about Santa Anita (oh, wait, that was tried during the autumn meeting when the Jimmy Dunne original, “My California,” was played everyday over the PA system, much to the horror of those in attendance).

Perhaps Simmons can convince Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to come out to Santa Anita real soon. I hear they're planning a wedding, and there's a beautiful spot across Baldwin Avenue from Santa Anita, at the Arboretum, where they could share their vows, and then take a horse-drawn carriage to kick off their honeymoon at the Great Race Place.

I'll show up for it, wearing my KISS make-up.

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