Updated on 09/17/2011 12:10PM

Horses are here; how about fans?


ARCADIA, Calif. - After Del Mar and Fairplex Park enjoyed substantial gains last summer, business at Southern California racetracks slumped in the fall, enough to cause purse cuts at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting and at Hollywood Park.

Breaking that trend is a priority at the Santa Anita's winter-spring meeting, which begins an 84-day run on Friday.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Jack Liebau, the track president. "I think we seem to have an ample number of horses on our grounds. We have great demand for stall space. And all those point for good field size, which results in good handle. I would hope that we overcome the small field sizes that have plagued California in the last few months."

Showing even a modest gain in ontrack business would be an improvement from a dismal 2002-03 Santa Anita meeting. Last year, average daily attendance fell 11 percent from the previous winter-spring meeting to an all-time low of 8,842. Average handle from all sources - including offtrack sites, telephone, and the Internet - fell 2 percent from the previous meeting, to $11,785,178.

Last summer, Del Mar set records with an average ontrack attendance of 16,882 and overall average handle of $13.2 million.

Field size was particularly disappointing during the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita in the fall. Racing programs that in past years had been drawn by 11 a.m. or noon were sometimes not completed until 1 p.m., as officials scrambled to find horses.

In addition, the Oak Tree meeting was troubled by unseasonably warm weather well into October, and a bus strike for part of the season made it difficult for some customers to reach the racetrack. As business suffered, Oak Tree cut overnight purses by 10 percent for the final seven racing days. The Grade 2, $200,000 Las Palmas Handicap was eliminated in a cost-saving move.

Hollywood Park did not fare much better. Halfway through the six-week meeting that ended on Sunday, track officials cut overnight purses by 8 percent, citing as the main reasons a purse overpayment from the 2002 fall meeting and lackluster business.

Santa Anita will offer the highest purses in the nation in coming months. For example, a maiden special weight for 2-year-old sprinters Friday has a $47,000 purse with a $14,100 bonus for California-breds. A similar race at Gulfstream Park, which opens in Florida next month, is worth $32,000.

Much of Santa Anita's success depends on the weather. Last season was relatively dry with few major racing days disrupted by rain. A dry holiday season could provide an early boost for business, and allow trainers to train horses who are preparing for comebacks.

"If we get off to a good start with the weather, we can generate enthusiasm," Liebau said.

Beginning Friday, there is racing daily through Jan. 4 with the exception of Tuesday. Aside from the Jan. 2 program, there is a stakes each day.

There is a new sports bar and restaurant in the section of the Santa Anita grandstand that overlooks the paddock.

Liebau declined to predict the size of Friday's crowd and was concerned that Santa Anita might not erase a three-year trend of drawing fewer than 30,000 people on opening day.

"I would be pleasantly surprised and turning for cartwheels if we did that number," he said.

Opening day last year fell on a Thursday, and drew 25,677. As recently as 1999, attendance was 44,018.

The last opening day on a Friday was in 1997, when a crowd of 39,683 saw Lord Grillo upset Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm in the Malibu Stakes. There is no Funny Cide in this year's Malibu, but the race has drawn an outstanding field.

"Friday is one of the better opening days," Liebau said. "It's better than Thursday because more people will be off work. With Christmas on Thursday, it's kind of natural to cheat and go to the races on Friday."