Let me start by saying I have something of a bias when it comes to Santa Anita Park, host of this year's Breeders' Cup. Before I moved with the Field Newspaper Syndicate from Chicago to Southern California in 1979, Santa Anita was my first stop on a brief visit that was supposed to be devoted to finding housing. I was used to going to the races at Hawthorne, Sportman's Park, and occasionally old Arlington Park, and I wanted to see if Santa Anita was any different. The racing was fine in Chicago – it was all I knew – but I figured a state that created Disneyland, lured the baseball Giants and Dodgers from New York, and made all those movies had to put on a pretty good show for horseracing, too.
When I arrived at Santa Anita that March weekday afternoon, it was a warm, sunny day, just as it was for the 2012 Breeders' Cup Championships. I was fleeing a city that had just endured the worst winter of its history, with record snowfall and sub-zero temperatures. It didn't take long for me to fall in love with the place.
There were three of us soon-to-be-ex-Chicagoans on that exploratory trip, as I recall, and we parked in the track's infield parking lot because it was the first one we found. When we emerged from a tunnel in the infield the sight was breathtaking: a nearly-filled grandstand (yes, back then, even weekday crowds were huge), flowers, fountains, and dappled out horses trained by names like Charlie Whittingham, Johnny Longden, and Willard Proctor, and ridden by legends like Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr., and a youngster named Stevie Cauthen, who the previous year guided Affirmed to Triple Crown glory.
We eventually got around to looking for apartments to live in, and moved to Southern California with our company a couple of months later. But that first impression of Santa Anita, for me, has lasted more than 30 years. A lot has changed about the “Great Race Place,” much of it for the worse, but it remains a rare jewel on the American horseracing landscape.
Santa Anita used to drive enormous crowds for its number one race, the Santa Anita Handicap. The marketing pitch, delivered over and over, was simple: “If you go to the races just once a year, make it this Sunday for the Big ‘Cap.” And it worked. The 1985 Santa Anita Handicap, featuring the Argentine horse, Lord At War, who did not really have that much of a following, drew an all-time record crowd of 85,527.
Nowadays, the track's top attraction is the Santa Anita Derby, since the Big ‘Cap has been weakened by horses going to Dubai and an older horse population that ain't what it used to be. The 2012 announced attendance on Santa Anita Derby Day was 33,166.
Anyone who was on hand at Santa Anita for this year's Breeders' Cup knows that Santa Anita can still put on a very good show. It can handle crowds in the 50,000 range or higher. Those crowds have fashion, style and panache. There were plenty of show business types and corporate execs among them. But there is also a very serious and experienced group of horseplayers who populate the area, and there is no doubt the Breeders' Cup provides them with the best wagering opportunities they'll get all year. And most people with the means to travel don't need to have their arms twisted to visit Southern California when the temperatures back East are starting to drop in late October and early November.
A few years ago, a Breeders' Cup committee saw many of these same positive attributes and recommended that Santa Anita be given a long-term commitment to serve as Breeders' Cup host site, maybe even a “permanent” host. It was a radical concept, one that flew in the face of the traditional moveable feast that the Breeders' Cup had been since its inaugural running in 1984, making stops at Hollywood Park, Aqueduct, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Gulfstream Park, Belmont Park, Woodbine, Arlington Park, Lone Star Park, and Monmouth Park.
The positive side to rotating the Cup among multiple racetracks is that it allows different groups of people to see it without having to travel very far. But the negative is that it's difficult to build momentum, marketing partnerships, and local fan interest for an always moving event that is not part of a top-tier sport like the NFL or NCAA basketball. Stagnant handle for the event, expanded for the first time to two days in 2007, suggests a change in philosophy for host site selection may be needed.
Naming Santa Anita long-term host would step on some toes in New York and Kentucky, among others. But the Breeders' Cup will never be bigger than the Kentucky Oaks/Derby weekend in the spring at Churchill Downs. Neither will it ever top the excitement or on-track crowds that Belmont Park brings when a horse is going for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. It would be the biggest thing, not just for Santa Anita but for all of California racing, if the Breeders' Cup set up shop there for multiple years.
There are some problems. The main racing surface, for example, is a speed-biased dirt track that virtually eliminates a deep closer, and the Europeans who tried it this week had generally poor results. (Minor suggestion: move the Marathon from the dirt to the turf course next year and take advantage of that hillside turf start and run the race at a mile and three-quarters.) But both track owner Frank Stronach and California have spoken, and they don't want a synthetic track at Santa Anita. We can only hope, then, that they get this track to be the safest, fairest dirt it can be.
Despite the 2012 Breeders' Cup results that saw numerous winners come from the East Coast, and others from Europe and Argentina, Southern California horsemen will have an advantage. In much the same way that New York stables have an advantage in the Belmont Stakes.
Is the Breeders' Cup board likely to recommend a long-term or permanent host like Santa Anita? Probably not, since the majority of the board comes from Kentucky or the East Coast.
But the Breeders' Cup is at something of a crossroads. Its television ratings (despite a nice bump for a prime-time Classic on NBC) are down significantly from its earliest years (admittedly when the weekend sports TV options were far more limited). Handle has not grown at the pace anticipated by the board when it nearly doubled the number of “championship” races (there are now so many races for so many different divisions that its winners can't even mount a serious run for an Eclipse Award).
What John Gaines created 30 years ago when he announced the creation of the Breeders' Cup was the boldest new plan for American racing in the 20th Century. What the current Breeders' Cup board seems to be doing, instead of making bold decisions that may be in the best interests of the organization, is worry more about who might be offended if they name Santa Anita a long-term or permanent host.
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