12/22/2015 4:22PM

Hovdey: Santa Anita builds, hoping people will come

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As the opening of the Santa Anita meet approached in late December 2006, then-track president Ron Charles said the following: “We need to bring the fans back to the racetrack. It’s the only way we’re going to revitalize horse racing, by giving them the ontrack experience and in the process making Santa Anita that destination spot it once was.”

In the years since Charles made that statement, Santa Anita has hosted the Breeders’ Cup five times, Zenyatta has come and gone, and Charles stepped down. Others have taken his place, each one citing the importance of the live audience, and the ontrack experience at Santa Anita Park has been significantly altered by the millions of dollars spent on a piecemeal modernization of the 80-year-old facility.

How’s that attendance thing going? The average daily crowd during the 2006-07 meet was 9,383. The average attendance during the corresponding meet in 2014-15 was 7,343. Where those 2,000 people a day went, no one really knows.

This is not to single out Santa Anita as unique to the experience of fan decline. The pestilence is national in scope, and to its credit, Santa Anita’s management continues to report attendance figures that at least fall within the realm of believability. Some major tracks don’t even bother – with either the reporting or the believability.

Fans arriving Saturday for the first day of the 2015-16 season will notice nothing appreciably different from last year’s opener. According to Keith Brackpool, chairman of the Los Angeles Turf Club, the money was spent during the offseason on things like the conversion to flat-screen TVs throughout the plant, the clearing of storm drains and ditches in anticipation of the predicted El Niño torrents, and the ongoing installation of security cameras in the backstretch barns.

The challenge is significant. Think of it as retrofitting the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But there is no doubt that once a patron wanders the grounds for a while, he is enchanted at Santa Anita’s island of Thoroughbred racing in a sea of Los Angeles traffic gridlock.

“We are drawing from a tiny radius of convenience as far as transportation is concerned,” Brackpool said. “Because of that, transit in Southern California has become our greatest challenge. There is only one way to fix it, and that is to change habits so that we don’t have the ‘one person, one car’ mentality. So, it really has become a matter of helping people get here.”

He has a point. The idea of regular trips across town for entertainment in L.A. has gone the way of the dodo.

“We’ve made a deal with Uber where we pick up 50 percent of any ride to the track, and they are promoting it heavily,” Brackpool said. “Then in March, when the Gold Line” – a commuter light rail – “is scheduled to come to Arcadia, you’re going to see our own fleet of shuttles bringing people across from the station to the track.”

A decent product on the racetrack and attendant promotional tricks also could help bring a few of those 2,000 missing daily back to the fold. Saturday’s handsome opening card is topped, as usual, by the $300,000 Malibu Stakes, a race that any fan worth his free Santa Anita calendar has long cherished, even buried at the end of the year.

Go back far enough, and there were Malibu runnings where handicap heavyweight Hillsdale beat the accomplished Jewel’s Reward, where Horse of the Year Damascus beat West Coast star Rising Market, where Spectacular Bid turned back Flying Paster, where Derby winner Ferdinand beat Preakness winner Snow Chief, and where Rock Hard Ten beat an up-and-comer named Lava Man.

This reporter tried for some time to edge the Malibu into the following year to give it some serious national clout as a seven-furlong event any potential champion might want on a résumé. That thought has become moot – as so many of my recent thoughts have become – because Santa Anita no longer offers any stakes races restricted to 4-year-olds in the opening months of the year.

The last vestige of the program was the La Canada Stakes for 4-year-old fillies, now open to ages 4 and up as a steppingstone to the Santa Margarita. Such is life. It follows that if the Malibu were to move into January, it would be just another good sprint, run far too early to make much difference later in the season.

Saturday’s renewal of the Malibu – the 64th in a run interrupted only once, by a parimutuel clerks’ strike in 1970 – might as well have been presented somewhere east of the Rockies to save on airfare. Five of the seven are not from around here, including Runhappy, the American sprint champ in waiting, and the Kiaran McLaughlin pair of Watershed and Marking.

Such regional cross-pollination is healthy in a Grade 1 race like the Malibu, but the lack of local representation does not necessarily bode well for the long run of Santa Anita stakes events unfolding over the next several months. Not very long ago, as the end of the California season drew to a close, the West harbored three of the game’s brightest stars, but it turns out that none of them will be appearing in the track’s marquee events.

California Chrome is aiming for a comeback in the San Pasqual Stakes on Jan. 9, an otherwise inconsequential 1 1/16 miles, after which he is heading for Dubai, while Beholder, the queen of all she surveys, is still at the farm and will have a 2016 campaign geared toward the second half of the year.

As for Shared Belief, the winner of the 2015 Santa Anita Handicap, his death from the ravages of colic Dec. 3 left a hole impossible to fill. There is no recovering from such a loss, only eventual acceptance.

In the meantime, let’s hope someone at Santa Anita cues up last year’s running of the Malibu, where Shared Belief ran down a very good Conquest Two Step, who suffered fatal injuries last April. There will be a good-sized crowd in the house Saturday, and happy to be back. But I don’t think anyone would mind at some point taking a moment of silence for the two fallen warriors.