12/22/2010 4:57PM

Dirt racing returns in Southern California; higher takeout looms for bettors

Barbara D. Livingston
Setsuko, runner-up in last weekend's Santa Anita Handicap, may travel to West Virginia for the April 16 Charles Town Classic, worth $1 million.

ARCADIA, Calif. – While the return of a dirt surface could make it easier to find winning horses at Santa Anita this winter, an increased cost of wagers could make it more difficult to find winning horseplayers.

Santa Anita Park opens for its 71st race meet Sunday, and, once again, it is a whole new world in California.

The problematic artificial main track at Santa Anita is gone, replaced with a natural surface of sand, silt, and clay. And so welcome back front-runners to a surface that track project manager Ted Malloy expects will reward fast horses.

“A fast track, if it’s not tiring, is always speed-favoring,” Malloy said. “But if a guy gets caught speeding, you want him to get beat. If a guy goes 21-44, he’s supposed to get beat.”

While many handicappers welcome back dirt, the uphill climb for bettors will get steeper Jan. 1 when the cost of exotic wagers increases 10 percent to 15 percent. Takeout will be raised from 20.68 cents per dollar to 22.68 cents for two-horse bets, and 23.68 cents per dollar for bets with three or more horses. Single-horse takeout remains 15.43 cents per dollar.

The rainstorm that dumped more than 12 inches on Santa Anita through Wednesday morning was expected to clear out by Thursday. Track superintendent Richard Tedesco and Malloy both expect the surface to be fast on Sunday.

“If it dries out [Wednesday night], and we don’t have any more rain, we will have a fast track Sunday,” Malloy said.

He said typically two or three days after rain, when the bottom of the track is wet, the surface “is going to be smoking.”

David Flores, jockey for undefeated Turbulent Descent, worked horses over the new surface prior to the rain.

“It’s fast, but it’s great. I love it,” Flores said. “They work fast, and they’re doing it easy.”

Turbulent Descent is expected to compete in both Grade 1’s for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita – the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks on March 5.

The glamour division of Santa Anita winter is 3-year-olds leading to the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 9. Early contenders include CashCall Futurity winner Comma to the Top and Futurity third-place finisher Clubhouse Ride.

The older handicap division is up for grabs, but the seven-furlong Malibu for 3-year-olds of 2010 will set the tone for a march toward the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap on March 5. Twirling Candy is expected to start as the tepid favorite in the Malibu.

Two former Derby hopefuls from 2010, Caracortado and Setsuko, are closers hoping that Malibu front-runners Smiling Tiger and Alcindor set it up. Setsuko has not raced since April, but trainer Richard Mandella suggested not to sell him short.

“He’s a horse that wants farther, but he will finish,” Mandella said. “He should be a horse that gets better” with age.

Mandella has won the Malibu four times, including three with horses returning from layoffs (Rock Hard Ten, Dixie Union, and Afternoon Deelites).

Most of the legislatively mandated takeout increase will go to overnight purses. Due to a declining horse population, racing interests lobbied for a purse increase to be funded by a higher takeout. Santa Anita overnight purses will increase 25 percent to more than $300,000 daily.

Santa Anita president George Haines expected some backlash.

“It was extremely tough for management to make this decision,” he said. “We’ve always prided ourselves on having one of the lowest takeouts in the country. This was done with the expectation of raising the quality of our product; I think we can do that by providing increased purses.”

Haines said the decision was partly based on an assumption that pricing will not influence wagering habits.

“Maybe the top point-one percent of the handicapping world has that in their equation – what the takeout is – but for the most part, people are looking at handicapping winners,” he said.

Track officials hope the increase will be offset by positive vibes from a return to a conventional surface.

“We’ve always heard that some people were staying away from betting Santa Anita because they did not like the surface,” said Scott Daruty, president and chief executive officer of HRTV and TrackNet Media. The thinking is a reliable main track will bring back players, notwithstanding the higher cost of exotic bets.

“If somebody is so price-sensitive that they’re not going to bet Santa Anita because the price went up, what are they going to bet instead? New York? Florida? Illinois tracks?” Daruty said.

“That does not mean we take our customers for granted. We do always have to be careful about raising prices. If it were not for these drastic circumstances, we would not be increasing prices. We increased price to a place most other people are already priced.”

Although the outstanding opening-day card suggests otherwise, the purse increase has not produced an immediate increase in the horse inventory, something that could change if the meet gets off to a good start. There will be nearly 1,900 horses stabled at Santa Anita and approximately 800 at Hollywood Park. A few new stables have arrived.

Steve Asmussen sent 30 horses to California for the first time, including promising colts for the 2011 Derby season – Tapizar and Astrology. Most of the Asmussen runners in California are soon-to-be 3-year-olds; his older sprinter Thiskyhasnolimit entered the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes on Sunday.

Eric Guillot returned to California with 20, including Grade 1 winner Champagne d’Oro, a contender Sunday in the Grade 1 La Brea for 3-year-old fillies.

Trainer Tom Proctor, based primarily in the Midwest, also has a string based in Southern California. Midwest-based Ken McPeek will ship in; his graded stakes winner Noble’s Promise is a contender in the Malibu.

Most of the early-season schedule includes racing four days a week, usually Thursday through Sunday. The tentative schedule goes to five days a week in March and April. The 76-day meet runs through April 17.

First post Sunday is noon.