A Christmas Tradition: Gin Fizzes, Turkey Dinner And Daily Racing Forms For Santa Anita’s Opening Day

I married into a horse racing family. No, Carol’s parents weren’t major owners or breeders (they did dabble with a few claiming horses), but you would be hard-pressed to find two people who were more dedicated to the sport and enthusiastic about the challenge of picking and betting on winners than Bill and Helen Watts.

They seldom missed a day at Santa Anita – weekdays or weekends. Bill was employed as a trader at Merrill Lynch in downtown Los Angeles and was free to head to the track in Arcadia when the markets closed at 1:00 p.m. Pacific. Helen’s job, it seems, was going to the races. She drove 15 miles from their home in Covina to Santa  Anita and was always there well in advance of the daily double. She’d give Bill a report on the first couple races when he arrived from work (though, in those days, you could keep up with the results on KNX News Radio, which played the stretch calls and gave the payouts of every race).

They were delighted to learn their daughter was dating someone she met at the Los Angeles office of Daily Racing Form, where Carol and I both worked in the 1980s. It may have had something to do with the fact we could grab a couple of extra copies of the Form when it was hot off the presses and not yet in distribution, saving them each $1.50.

A couple years later, when we decided to marry, Carol and I were told in no uncertain terms that the wedding would not take place during the Santa Anita winter-spring meet, the Del Mar summer meet, or the Santa Anita fall meeting then run by the Oak Tree Racing Association. That left late April-June and November-December during Hollywood Park, or September during the Los Angeles County Fair race meeting at Pomona. We set Sept. 25, 1983, for our wedding date.

Bill and Helen’s lives were organized around the sport. Vacations – sometimes group tours to visit racetracks, breeding farms and training centers overseas – had to fit into those same time slots as our wedding. Social events with friends or business associates on race days were highly discouraged and avoided as much as possible.

One of their favorite days of the year was Christmas, not so much because of the religious aspects or good cheer of the holiday. It was due to the anticipation and excitement of what came next: opening day at Santa Anita. (One of their other favorite days each year was the mid-July opening day at Del Mar, which they also never missed.)

I have to laugh when I hear someone complain about awkward Christmas dinner conversations with in-laws. Questions like, “When are you going to have kids?” or, “Have you thought about a career change?” never came up in our dinner table discussions.

It was more like, “Who do you like in the double?” “Do you want to put in a Pick 6 ticket with us?” or, “How big do you think the opening day crowd is going to be tomorrow?” (Note: this was back when opening day attendance of 50,000-60,000 was common and leaving the track could be a traffic nightmare.)

The Watts family Christmas Day tradition began with gin fizzes and the opening of a few presents, and then on to a feast of turkey with all the trimmings. Once the dinner  table was cleared, the Daily Racing Forms came out and the serious business began. We’d go through every race, each of us giving our picks, and why.

There may have been a better time for Southern California horse racing than the early to mid-1980s, but I never experienced anything more exciting. The jockey colony – Hall of Famers Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr., Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Sandy Hawley, Darrel McHargue and a newcomer named Gary Stevens – was the best I will ever see. Hall of Fame trainers like Charlie Whittingham, Laz Barrera, Gary Jones, Richard Mandella, Robert Frankel and an upstart from the Quarter Horse world named D. Wayne Lukas seemed to dominate the big races. It was the Golden Era for me.

Bill and Helen have both passed in recent years, but I know if there’s a heaven above with a newsstand selling the Daily Racing Form, they’ll start handicapping the daily double as soon as Christmas dinner is over. And some how, some way, they’ll find a place to make a wager. They never met a race they didn’t like, especially on opening day at Santa Anita.

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