12/27/2008 1:00AM

Attendance up for opening day


ARCADIA, Calif. – Santa Anita opened its winter-spring meeting on Friday with an increase in ontrack attendance but a slight drop in handle from last year.

On a clear day with temperatures in the 50s – cold for Southern California – the nine-race program drew a crowd of 33,112, a gain of 9.8 percent over the 2007 opening-day audience of 30,156. By comparison, the 2006 meeting opened with an ontrack crowd of 32,931.

Friday’s all-sources handle reached $15,046,336, a decline of .5 of a percent from the 2007 opening day. The 2006 opening day had an all-sources handle of more than $14.9 million.

“It’s good to get off to this kind of start,” track president Ron Charles said midway through the afternoon while standing in the turf club.

After months of disappointing news in Southern California racing – lower attendance and handle and purse cuts brought on by a dreadful economy – the large crowd on Friday boosted spirits, at least for a day. Hollywood Park ended its eight-week autumn meeting on Dec. 21 with an 18 percent decline in all-sources handle and a 12 percent decline in ontrack attendance.

Charles said that while Friday’s ontrack and simulcasting handle within California was down, there was growth through account wagering and interstate simulcasting.

Three races were transferred from the turf course to the main track because of wet weather on Wednesday and Thursday.

“It’s unfortunate the races came off the turf,” Charles said. “It definitely affected our handle.”

Charles said the track “aggressively” promoted opening day through local television advertising.

“We had more spots this year than last year,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us to jump start racing in Southern California.”

In an effort to achieve that, Santa Anita is offering free admission on Fridays through the meeting, which ends on April 19.

The day was not without its mishaps. Customers complained of traffic logjams at entrances on the west side of the track, which shares an approach road to the racetrack with a large shopping mall.

“We need to get that straightened out,” Charles said.

On the racetrack, the first race, for maiden claimers, was marred by a fatal breakdown suffered by Warren’s Kenzo.