View From The Eighth Pole: Though Times Have Changed, Santa Anita Opening Day Remains Special

During the nine years I lived in Southern California from 1979-‘88, Christmas took on a uniquely special meaning.

It had nothing to do with the neatly-wrapped presents under the tree or a visit from Jolly Old Saint Nick. It had everything to do with what happened the day after Christmas.

For most of its 83 years, Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., has opened a winter-spring Thoroughbred meeting on Dec. 26. There was a time – before Hollywood Park squeezed in a fall meet in November and December in advance of the 1984 debut of the Breeders’ Cup – that racing went on a hiatus late in the year. For Southern California horseplayers, there was no simulcasting, online wagering or TVG racing network to watch. Horseplayers, like horses, got some down time: a chance to rest, replenish and get reinvigorated for the new year ahead.

The opening day of Santa Anita represented the kickoff to that new season. Crowds of more than 60,000 routinely turned out. While some came for the traditional Santa Anita calendar giveaway, most were there for the racing, which then featured the Palos Verdes Handicap, a sprint for 3-year-olds and up, as the main attraction.

The best part of Christmas dinner – with apologies to the chef – was after dessert was served and dishes were cleared. Out came the Daily Racing Forms and a round table handicapping discussion about the opening day program. There was palpable excitement about the things to come the next day and the rest of the season.

Some things have changed in the nearly three decades since I attended my last opening day at Santa Anita. The program now features four graded stakes, including the last two Grade 1 races on the American racing calendar: the Malibu for 3-year-old males and La Brea for 3-year-old fillies. Both were previously run in January and kicked off respective three-race series restricted to 4-year-olds – the La Canada for fillies and Strub Series for males. The La Canada and Strub Series are things of the past, when the horse population and condition book permitted 4-year-olds to remain segregated from older horses until the big races of the winter-sprint meeting, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, better known as the Big ‘Cap (and its female counterpart, the Santa Margarita Handicap).

Speaking of the Big ‘Cap, that once-prestigious fixture has become a shadow of its former self, a victim of races like the Dubai World Cup and Pegasus World Cup. It’s been supplanted by the Santa Anita Derby as the biggest race of the winter-spring meeting, in part a reflection of the regularly depleted older horse division, brought on by the greater emphasis and desire by horse owners to chase Triple Crown glory.

Though not quite as robust, the crowds still show up opening day (track officials announced a turnout of 46,514 in 2016), but on-track betting is nowhere near where it used to be. Last year’s on-track wagering of $3,633,235 was far below the $9-million-plus bet on-track in the late 1980s). Factor in the off-track and on-line numbers through various advance-deposit wagering companies, however, and total wagering is nearly double that from the late 1980s.

Times have changed, for sure.

Between TVG’s onsite television coverage, the track feed available from ADW companies and the robust online presentation by, more people than ever will take in today’s opening day program at Santa Anita. I’ll be there, in spirit at least, hoping the Great Race Place can somehow recapture the excitement of what opening day once meant to me and carry the momentum forward to a successful winter-sprint meet.

That’s my view from the eighth pole.

The post View From The Eighth Pole: Though Times Have Changed, Santa Anita Opening Day Remains Special appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

DYFD Winter - 300x90

Comments are closed.