12/23/2013 9:46AM

Golden Gate Fields opens meet with tweaked wagering menu, larger fields

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Golden Gate Fields opens its 2013-14 racing season Thursday and is caught up in the ripple effect of the makeover of the Southern California racing calendar.

With the closing of Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita, both owned by the Stronach Group, hold all the state’s racing dates until the start of the Northern California fair season at Pleasanton on June 19.

Tom Ludt, the former president of Vinery Farm and chairman of Breeders’ Cup Ltd., is now a senior vice president of the Stronach Group and is focusing on the company’s relationships with horsemen and bettors. Golden Gate is squarely in his plans, including getting more live races on TVG.

“Our industry is struggling,” Ludt said. “I used to tell people, ‘This is what I’d do if I ran a track.’ If things were working, you might try to tweak them. If not, you have to try bigger things. I’d like to tell you everything will work, but only some will be received well.”

Ludt said improving what he called “neglected” facilities is one way to attract more fans. Lowering the takeout on daily doubles from 22.68 percent to 18 percent also is an important step. He said only three doubles will be offered on each card – the first and second races, the fourth and fifth, and the final two races – the same schedule and takeout that will be implemented at Santa Anita.

He also is moving the pick five, which maintains its 14 percent takeout, from the last five races on the card to the first five so Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita will offer the same betting schedule, with the pick six on the final six races of the day.

The Super High 5 has been moved from the fifth race to the last race of the day. The place pick all will not be offered any more.

Ludt said he likes that Golden Gate Fields has branded itself with its popular “Dollar Sunday” promotion, but he hopes to create promotions that will attract Sunday patrons to the track on other days as well.

He said attendance is important, but he is realistic enough to add that, “We need gamblers,” and he wants to find ways to draw big bettors to the track instead of them simply betting from home.

Wagering fuels racing and purses, so Ludt said he hopes to increase field sizes and the horse population on the grounds.

“We need to focus on things we can control,” he said. “We have to make our purse situation more profitable for owners.”

Golden Gate took a step in the right direction in increasing handle as it relates to field size during its fall meet, when it averaged 7.9 runners per race, up from last year’s 7.5 average. The field size averages 9.3 runners for the first three days of the new meet.

Ludt would like to improve racing’s use of sponsorships to boost purses. He said there must be better North-South cooperation between tracks in California and that there could be a period when turf racing in the state is concentrated in Northern California to give the Santa Anita course a breather.

He also hopes to make Northern California more attractive to owners whose horses may not fit in Southern California.

There is some charted territory remaining, though. Jockey Russell Baze and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who won their 47th riding and 45th training titles at the fall meet, will be back. Rejoining the jockey colony to challenge Baze will be Kevin Krigger.