04/21/2014 9:42AM

Handle up, attendance down at Santa Anita winter-spring meeting

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Santa Anita finished its 69-day winter-spring meeting Sunday with an increase in average daily all-sources handle but a decline in average ontrack attendance, according to track president Tom Ludt.

The meeting, which began Dec. 26, had an increase in all-sources handle of approximately 4 percent. Attendance was down 8 percent, while ontrack handle was down approximately 1 percent, Ludt said.

The track did not release extensive business data after Sunday’s final day of the season.

Ludt said the business of the meeting left him with mixed feelings, encouraged by higher handle and hopeful that the track’s recent improvements and a new admission strategy will lead to larger crowds.

“With handle up ontrack and countrywide, we’re doing something right,” he said. “I’m concerned about attendance, but we’ve made a major investment in the experience.”

Last summer, the track refurbished the mezzanine level to offer a wider variety of food choices and upgraded the old turf club and box-seat area. For the upcoming spring-summer meeting that begins Friday, the track is offering free admission to the infield on weekends in an effort to attract families and more casual racing fans.

“We’re trying to do things to drive attendance,” he said.

Ludt said the track is “getting away from giveaways,” which can skew attendance figures, he said.

The spring-summer meeting will be a first at Santa Anita. In prior years, the track ended its winter-spring meeting in late April and did not resume racing until an autumn meeting started in late September. This year, the spring-summer meeting continues through June 29, replacing dates previously run at Hollywood Park, which closed in December.

The two biggest races of the winter-spring meeting produced the largest handle figures. The Santa Anita Handicap program March 8 had an all-sources handle of $22,589,082. The Santa Anita Derby card’s handle was $22,542,443.

The largest ontrack crowd was on Santa Anita Derby Day, with 35,241, a figure 6.7 percent higher than the corresponding day in 2013. The Big Cap program drew 27,121.

Field sizes were down from the corresponding meeting in 2013. The track ran 594 races with 4,551 starters, for an average of 7.66 runners per race. At the 2012-13 meeting, the track ran 616 races that had an average field size of 8.08 runners per race. Field size in February averaged just 7.17 runners per race, but that figure rose to 8.09 runners per race in April.

On the racetrack, Rafael Bejarano was the runaway leading rider, with 93 wins, 39 more than runner-up Joe Talamo. Bejarano, 32, has won five riding titles at winter-spring meetings. He won three consecutive titles from 2007-08 through 2009-10 and again last year.

Trainers Jerry Hollendorfer and John Sadler finished in a tie for first with 34 wins, one more than Bob Baffert, who had won the training title at the three previous winter-spring meetings.

Sadler won the final race Sunday with Bench Light, who rallied in deep stretch of a turf race over 1 1/4 miles to catch the Hollendorfer-trained Husband’s Folly. For Hollendorfer, the title was his first at a winter-spring meeting. Sadler won titles at the 2008-09 and 2009-10 meetings.

Glen Hill Farm led all owners with 15 wins, including stakes with Customer Base, Diversy Harbor, Enterprising, and Pontchatrain, all trained by Tom Proctor.

California Chrome, unbeaten in three stakes, including the Santa Anita Derby, was voted horse of the meeting. California Chrome is expected to be favored in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3.