I'll never forget my first visit to Santa Anita.
It was the winter of 1979 and I was living in Chicago. I should say I was eager to flee the Windy City after a January that saw sub-zero temperatures for two weeks and snowfall that eventually would accumulate to more than 90 inches. City streets went unplowed for weeks on end. People were cold and miserable. At least I was.
My employer, the Field Newspaper Syndicate, was divorcing itself from the Chicago Sun-Times and moving to Irvine, Calif., close to midway between Santa Anita east of Los Angeles and Del Mar just north of San Diego. My boss asked me if I wanted to transfer.
“Do you think I'm crazy?” I responded.
“Is that a yes or a no?” he said.
“When do we leave?” I asked.
Prior to our March 1979 move, I flew out on a weekday with a couple of co-workers to look for housing. Both were horseplayers. After getting a rental car at LAX, we voted unanimously to spend our first day getting acclimated. That meant driving straight to Santa Anita in Arcadia.
We found our way there down Century Boulevard to the Harbor Freeway to the Pasadena Freeway to the Foothill Freeway to the Santa Anita exit, then followed the signs to the track. We pulled into the first parking lot we saw, off Colorado Place, north of the racetrack and adjacent to the infield. The warmth of the sunshine as we walked toward the infield tunnel made all those freezing wintertime commutes to Chicago's Loop on the Howard “L” a distant memory.
When we emerged from the tunnel into the infield, the view took my breath away: on one side, a beautiful, open-air grandstand, more than half-filled for this weekday program. There were fountains and park benches and flower gardens and walkways. To the north were the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. Snow didn't seem so bad if you could look at it from a distance and not have to trudge through it on the way to work.
I thought maybe I had died and gone to heaven.
“This isn't Hawthorne,” I said, in reference to my home track in Chicago where the views were of smokestacks and a gritty urban skyline that always seemed gray.
I think of that first visit every year when the traditional Dec. 26 opening day at Santa Anita approaches. I gradually made my way from the Santa Anita infield, to the grandstand, to the press box, getting a job at the Los Angeles office of Daily Racing Form. I spent nine years in Southern California before moving to Kentucky in 1988.
I remember the joy on Christmas day of clearing off the dinner table after our big meal, cracking open up the Racing Forms and handicapping the opening day card with family members. It was every bit as exciting as opening day to a baseball fan.
Many horseplayers in Southern California look forward to the day after Christmas just as much as they do the holiday itself. There is just something magical about it – at least there is to me.
There was more a racing season back when I first discovered Santa Anita – including a break from the autumn Oak Tree stand at Santa Anita until the opening day of the winter-spring meet that would end in April. Hollywood Park began a November-December meet a few years later that crammed more racing onto the Southern California calendar and made it virtually 52 weeks a year. Even with Hollywood Park gone, those dates have mostly been filled up with autumn racing at Del Mar, Santa Anita and Los Alamitos. The game has changed, too, with off-track and online wagering making it more convenient not to attend live racing and still follow and bet on the sport.
There is a shortage of horses (or really a shortage of owners) that has abbreviated the racing week and put fewer horses in the starting gate per race. Trainers with huge stables have put the squeeze on many of their rivals and that's caused problems at the entry box, too – and not just in Southern California. The betting menu has been expanded to lure horseplayers toward the shiny metal objects that represent higher risk, higher reward wagers, and takeout has climbed to the point where it's tough for the small-time player to compete with the “whales” who get rebates for volume play.
But it is still The Great Race Place. Santa Anita's beauty is just as inspiring now as before. Dec. 26 marks the kickoff to the 82nd winter meet and the opening-day card is as good as it gets for horseplayers. If you can't be there opening day, make it a point to visit sometime. Wander around the paddock gardens, take a walk to the infield and enjoy the view. It is one of our sport's greatest treasures.
Here's a vintage ad for Santa Anita's opening day, featuring Emmy Award-winning sports commentator Jack Whitaker.
And the latest opening-day ad, “The Timeless Tradition,” created by the track's marketing department for this year's meet.
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