What's the dirt on Santa Anita Park's opening day for the 2010 winter-spring meeting? This much we know for sure.
– It was the third-largest opening day turnout in the last 10 years, but the 34,268 on-track (presumably including a number of spinners who wanted more than one calendar, the longstanding giveaway on the first day of the meeting) wagered the lowest amount on a Santa Anita opening day since 1974. Total handle of $11,707,276 was the lowest since 1992, when $9,368,250 was bet on the opening-day program.
– The main track, with newly installed sand and clay to replace the synthetic surface mandated by the California Horse Racing Board over three years ago, played safe and fast – really fast. Fractional and final times of some races bordered on the absurd, with a 2-year-old maiden shading 1:07 and Twirling Candy breaking Hall of Fame champion Spectacular Bid's 30-year-old track record for seven furlongs with a 1:19.70 clocking in the Grade 1 Malibu. The best news about the new track was that every starter returned safely to be unsaddled, and there were no horses pulled up or vanned off.
– John Sadler and Joel Rosario are going to be major forces during the meeting, and Bob Baffert has a rising star on the Triple Crown trail.
First, the business numbers.
Santa Anita celebrated its 75th anniversary when doors opened for the 2009-10 meeting one year ago, and marketing chief Allen Gutterman was delighted with the on-track turnout of 35,292 fans. There was a lot going on last year surrounding the anniversary, including the unveiling of a John Henry statue and a free poster of Zenyatta, who was being honored upon her expected retirement (which ultimately didn't happen).
This year's on-track crowd of 34,268 had to similarly bring smiles to the faces of Gutterman and other Santa Anita executives, so from that standpoint it was a very successful opening. It was a far cry from the all-time record opening day crowd of 69,293 in 1982, but that was back in the days prior to inter-track wagering, video streaming and live telecasts on HRTV.
Betting on opening day tells a different story. The on-track handle, $3,851,594 on a nine-race program, was down 15.0% from 2009, when $4,531,236 was wagered on 10 races. Handle from in-state simulcasting was down 11.3%, from $3,182,200 to $2,822,702. But it was the out-of-state wagering that really tumbled, from $7,200,517 to $5,032,980, a whopping decline of 30.1%.
All sources handle on the day was $11,707,276, a 21.5% decline from $14,913,953 in 2009.
Through the sixth race of the day, though, both on-track and total handle were running ahead of 2009's first six race, according to Santa Anita officials. The seventh race, the Sir Beaufort, ended up with a 3-10 favorite and a five-horse field after it was taken off the turf. From that point forward, handle took a very steep drop. That's also about the time the snowstorm began to hit the East Coast.
The accompanying chart shows the trend of on-track attendance and handle, along with total wagering. This year's combined handle is down 38.4% from the all-time opening day record of $19,004,625 in 2005. The on-track record of $9,401,617 was established in 1986 prior to intertrack wagering.
Why the downturn in handle? I think there are several reasons: poor weather conditions in the East at simulcast locations, uncertainty over the new dirt track, the closing of New York City OTB, and an unofficial boycott of California racing by horseplayers who are unhappy with new legislation that will raise takeout on exotic wagers, effective Jan. 1, 2011.
Professional horseplayer and author Barry Meadow, a longtime habitué of California racetracks, came up with an even longer list in a comment he left on the Paulick Report Sunday night.
Here is Meadow's list of contributing factors:
* General downturn of economy
* Generally lessened interest in racing
* Weather last year vs. this year
* Field sizes
* Dirt vs. synthetics
* Increase in takeout
* Number of races per day
* Change in rebate rates
* Number of racing cards
* Quality of fields
* Which places do or don't take signals
* Effect of horseplayers' boycott
* More effective competition from other tracks
One or two days will not tell the story of the 2010-11 Santa Anita meeting. The blizzard that hit the Northeast Sunday night closed Aqueduct for simulcasting on Monday and also shuttered the New York Racing Association's telephone/internet betting service. We have not heard from other pari-mutuel operations in the area, but travel will be very difficult Monday, even for horseplayers determined to place a bet. That figures to put Santa Anita in a two-day hole in comparison to 2009.
It's worth noting that Golden Gate Fields in Northern California experienced an increase in pari-mutuel handle on Sunday, jumping 1.8%, from $3,056,308 in 2009 to $3,110,983. Sunday was the opening of the 2010-11 meeting at Golden Gate and included a calendar giveaway as part of the Bay Area track's 70-year anniversary.
On the racing front, the new dirt track managed to withstand a near-historic onslaught of rain in the week before opening day. After opening day's first race, a low-level claiming event at 1 1/16 miles when the internal fractions were exceedingly slow, the rest of the card featured fast times from beginning to end.
The six-furlong final time of 1:09.67 for maiden claimer Double D's Diamond looked fast after the second race until two races later, when Baffert-trained 2-year-old The Factor sizzled the same distance in 1:06.98, a new track record. That performance for George Bolton and Fog City Stables War Front colt suddenly brightened Baffert's prospects for a fourth Kentucky Derby – though this was only a maiden race.
After The Factor put on his display of speed, it was the John and Joel show. Trainer John Sadler and jockey Joel Rosario swept the three graded stakes with Switch in the G1 La Brea (seven furlongs in 1:20.33), Sidney's Candy in the G3 Sir Beaufort (one mile in 1:33.70 after being transferred from the turf because of the course condition), and Twirling Candy in the G1 Malibu (seven furlongs in 1:19.70).
Interestingly, on Thursday, when Santa Anita's main track was reopened for training but with cones protecting the inner portion of the oval, Sadler shipped his three stakes starters to Hollywood Park to breeze over the synthetic Cushion Track, which was back to normal after the heavy rains had closed it to training for several days. His assistant, Larry Benavidez, called the decision a “million-dollar move.” Sadler is president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, which lobbied the California Horse Racing Board to allow Santa Anita to remove its synthetic surface and replace it with dirt.
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