12/28/2011 10:59PM

Crowded House


Math is a long way from my strong suit, but some numbers beg to be crunched. Like these:

Figures released on a daily basis by Hollywood Park during its November-December meet of 26 days came out to a daily average on-track attendance of 3,332. Okay then, 3,332 times 26, carry the one, sixteen, ummm, lick pencil tip, carry the one again -- that's 86,832 for the meet.

The figure released for Santa Anita Park's opening day last Monday was 44, 519, which is not adjusted for the so-called "spinners" who think its worth paying the $5 for a "free" souvenir calendar, leaving and coming back through the turnstiles, paying another $5 for another calendar. Sorry -- free calendar. (There are at this writing 10 Santa Anita 2012 calendars offered on eBay for anything from $0.99 to $12.99. Don't ever tell me this isn't a great country.) Adjust what you like, these numbers don't lie. Opening day at Santa Anita attracted in the neighborhood of half the total number of fans that attended the ENTIRE Hollywood fall meet.

The message is clear, though increasingly tough to swallow. The leaders of the California industry apparently are willing to accept the fact that the final chunk of the 12-month calendar is essentially played out before a small television studio audience. With such tiny crowds, handle is so skewed off-track that on-site betting had been rendered meaningless, even though those on-track dollars are worth more to the host track, horsemen and the state in taxes.

More significantly, atmosphere is lost. There is nothing like the roar heard last Monday at Santa Anita when Trevor Denman, hardly believing his eyes, roused the crowd at the sight of Mike Smith and Mr. Commons changing course on a dime and knifing between rivals deep in the stretch to romp home in the Sir Beaufort Stakes on the turf.  Santa Anita officials promoted the socks off opening day and were rewarded. The downside is that the track, in many locations, was neither staffed nor equipped to efficiently supply demand for concessions, and that's a shame, especially if some customers were discouraged by slow service to ever return again. Isn't that the real challenge -- to spread the opening-day enthusiasm over the rest of the meet? The opening-day attendance was the largest since the 1994-95 meet, when average daily on-track attendance was 13,006. If this meet can reach a 10,000 average -- compared to last year's 8,123 -- there might be a ray of hope after all.

The future seems bright for both Mr. Commons and The Factor, who shaded 1:20 going wire-to-wire to win the 7-furlong Malibu at the end of the day. If Mr. Commons can handle the dirt, and he'll need to ignore his turfy pedigree, here's wishing they both eventually head for the Met Mile at Belmont Park in May. But that could be a pipe dream. With the 2012 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita and Mr. Commons destined for the Mile, John Shirreffs is a longshot to take him east of Barstow before November. As for The Factor, Bob Baffert thinks he deserves a turn on the world stage in Dubai, and who's to argue? Too bad, though, that it probably would take the gray colt out of the picture until late summer or fall.


Among the opening day crowd was John Shear, 90 years young and happy to be back to work as a paddock guard. This was the same fellow who put himself between a child and a runaway horse in the paddock last March and paid for it with a broken pelvis, among other painful things. Shear does not make a big deal of it, so we won't either (actually, we do). Rather, how about this tale from Shear's colorful youth on horseback in England:

"I was working for a trainer named Peter Thrale, and we were getting Three Cheers ready for the 1951 Cesarewitch Handicap, which was going to be run that year over two and a quarter miles at Doncaster. He was being held at 13-2. The boss wanted to get a good trial into him at the distance and over ground similar to Doncaster, so we took him to the Royal Course at Windsor. I was at the back of the course on a rabbit, ready to tie in for the second mile and lead Three Cheers by five lengths or so, when two young women rode up."

Turns out it was just a couple of princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, down from Windsor Castle, out for a horseback jaunt. Elizabeth, the older of the two, would not be Queen for another year.

"She asked if we had permission to use the course, and I said we did, and what we were doing there," Shear continued. "She said, 'Really? Is he a bet?' I told her he was as far as I was concerned. Then I had to go on. He went on and won the Cesarwitch, and I always hoped she bet. If she did she kept mum about it, because we got our price."


Mark Rott More than 1 year ago
Jay, not sure how to reach you so I'm trying this. One quick thing to add regarding your recent article about 1970. It also was the year of Sagely. Sagely raced until he was 15 -- winning 51 races -- most for Bill Strange at Finger Lakes. in his teens (I believe) one year he set a track record and was 7 for 7 the year he may have been 13. Maybe not Forego or Secretariat -- but an upstae NY fan favorite in his day!
leonard More than 1 year ago
I remember when there were 80,000 on a Saturday there and when leaving My dad held my hand because of so many people there.. I remember people all around me as we walked to the stairs to leave... a sea of humanity...
Been There Done That More than 1 year ago
Thanks for reminding me why NOT to attend Santa Anita again on Dec. 26. I had read for years about this charged and hyped up day and was able to attend in 2010 after traveling in from Chicago. I thought I was mentally ready for a big crowd, having been to SA for the Breeders Cup in 1993 and various other big days at tracks around the country. But by far, the best part was the anticipation, not the experience. I left before the end of the opening day card to beat the traffic crush, and also because I felt like no one running Santa Anita is expert at managing a large venue and caring for customers. I couldn't hear the track audio (what is SA without Trevor?), sandwich bars ran out of buns, many of the staff were grumpy or non-helpful, and lines were long and sloooow. I am not sure why year after year Santa Anita is not better prepared to showcase its beauitful setting and embrace the inevitable crowd. But let's be objective: live events that attract large crowds (and charge much more than the price of race track admission) are often inflicted with long lines, disappointing food and beverage, and various other unpleasantries. If you want to be there, it's all part of the true cost of admission.
GunBow More than 1 year ago
I applaud you Jay for mentioning the downside of the opening day crowd. As a huge fan of racing and frequent visitor to Santa Anita, I was enthused to see so many people, particularly young adults in the 21-40 age group, at Santa Anita for opening day. However, as a member of this demographic, and as someone that talked to other members of this demographic opening day, I believe Santa Anita shot itself in the foot. To start establishing in-roads among this prime demographic, it was important for Santa Anita to not just get people out to the track for opening day, but to make the experience positive enough that they would want to come back. To my pleasant surprise, Santa Anita was wildly successful in achieving the first goal, getting people to the track. Congrats to the marketing dept for putting up billboards and paying for tv ad spots; mission accomplished. However, the under-staffing problem was so severe that it quite possible ruined the experience for some. The story for much of the day was lines. The line of cars from either the Huntington or Santa Anita freeway exits trying to enter the Santa Anita parking lot at about 12:30 was at least 1 hour long. For those unfamiliar, the drive from the freeway exits to the track parking lot typically takes 5 minutes. In total, the drive from Orange County to Santa Anita, normally 1 hour, took 2 and an half hours. Of course, for any big event there is going to be some traffic. But the problem wasn't just the size of the crowd; there were too few workers set up to handle parking. Entering the parking lot using the main entrance(on the western side facing the track facade), only four employees were working in the parking lot. Amazingly, only 4 of the 8(by my count) lanes into and out of the track were being used to handle the flow of traffic into the parking lot. With 99% of cars being those traveling into the parking lot(in contrast to cars leaving the lot), it would have made alot more sense for Santa Anita to use 2 or even 3 of the 4 lanes typically used for outward traffic to handle the throng jamming the roads trying to get in. But that would have meant paying 6 or 7 people rather than 4. I actually asked the parking attendant I passed why they didn't reapportion more lanes for entry, and he responded with what seemed to be a pat answer(as if he had been asked it a hundred times), "the owner is cheap". The experience waiting in line to park was repeated when it came to getting food, beer, and to bet. There were not enough concession stands, not enough people working the concession stands, not enough beer stands, not enough bartenders, and not enough tellers(although this was less of a problem). Many people, particularly younger people who are used to a world of convenience, undoubtedly left with the impression that the powers that be at Santa Anita are either incompetent or cheap. As an aside, I think it would be prudent for Santa Anita, and other racetracks for that matter, to lower the prices on alcohol. In Vegas, alcohol is given free in many casinos to those on the floor, with the casinos knowing that people imbibing are probably more likely to bet. Rather than having people wait 20 minutes for a beer, Santa Anita officials should have made it as easy and cheap as possible for patrons to drink. Especially at a time when so many young people do not have much disposable income, cheap alcohol(like Hollywood Park's Friday night $1 beer) is going to be wildly popular. In conclusion, because of the success of marketing, Santa Anita was given a fairly unique opportunity to impress a large crowd; it was a chance for the track to introduce a large number of first-timers to the sport in such a way that many would want to return. But I fear that because of of either incompetence or frugality, Santa Anita missed this wonderful chance. Hopefully, the beauty of the track and its environs, the quality of the sporting experience(with excellent performances from the likes of The Factor, Mr. Commons, Got Even, Ismene, and Midnight Transfer, the latter two I missed sitting in traffic), and the excitement of wagering on an unpredictable sport(how about the 4th race super!), was enough to compensate.
SARAH More than 1 year ago
This is in response to Jerry Bailey's having a hard time with Rachel Alexandra winning HOY over Zenyatta on the basis that she took the easier path (Woodward against older males vs the Travers where she would face 3-year olds she had already crushed.) That makes zero sense to me. With the same logic, why didn't Zenyatta run in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic or Goodwood rather than face hopelessly weak females all year in much easier spots? So a 3-year old filly is not only supposed to win a Classic against males after trouncing the Oaks field, but she is also supposed to beat males 2 more times, once vs older males, running in six states and seven different tracks...all the while Zenyatta has a nice easy schedule and then wins the BC in her back yard on a surface that was proven to be unfair for dirt horses?? This really bothers me. A lot. Why is a 3-year old female expected to do all of these remarkable things and then get downgraded for not facing horses she had already whipped? It makes no sense, and if that's the way people vote, well let's just say that makes me very nervous. Be fair with your arguments. It'r quite unfair to allow an older mare to face less than stellar opposition all year and then have one big effort on an unfair fake surface, but the other younger filly is expected to break record after record? It's ok to like one better, but not to expect SOOO much more from the younger one.
Steve Hewlett More than 1 year ago
Average on-track attendance of 3,332 for the Hollywood Nov-Dec meet is abysmal. Is this due to OTB? I'd be curious to know what the average on-track handle for Nov-Dec was and what the average OTB handle was. For me, going to the track is a pleasure. In fact, I've never been to an OTB parlor.
Diceman More than 1 year ago
Hi Jay, Enjoyed your interesting and perceptive article regarding the Hollywood and Santa Anita race meets. There is one stark fact you intentially omitted. Unfortunately, Hollywood is located in a dreary and dangerous urban neighborhood and near nosey LAX Airport. SA and Del Mar are in beautiful and safe areas. "H" as we know it today, should be converted into a profitable up-scale shopping mall. With proceeds from the sale, "H" should be re-built near the Pacific Ocean, half way between San Diego and Los Angeles! Racing Fans and Tourists would flock to the new location and "H" would become a major Racing attraction again! Importantly, giving its current location, "H" will never host another Breederrs Cup. I use to visit "H" often for past Breeders Cups and other Racing Days, but I have not returned in the last 10 years for reasons outlined above. Diceman
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Three Cheers for John, Liz, and Maggie!!! Priceless.