12/28/2011 9:59PM

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."