06/27/2014 3:25PM

Hovdey: Santa Anita lasts the marathon distance

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It’s the end of June already, and for those who put off going to Santa Anita Park until the very last minute ... welcome to the very last minute.

Southern California’s first taste of a marathon race meeting concludes Sunday with 10 races topped by the $200,000 San Juan Capistrano. Appropriately, it is the longest race of the meet at about 1 3/4 miles, which gives the San Juan the same kind of “sayonara” wave as the 15-furlong Hasta La Vista Handicap that closes out the Turf Paradise meet in Arizona each spring.

Turf Paradise runs for seven months, as does ThistleDown in Ohio, while Emerald Downs and Golden Gate Fields each offers racing for a solid 5 1/2 months. Aqueduct puts in six months, much of it during the hard New York winter.

The men and women who operate such long-haul meets are a hardy breed. Even Thoroughbred racing at a stylish place like Santa Anita can be rendered a dreary endeavor after six months of horses turning left, while the facility can suffer from repetitive wear or casual neglect, not to mention customer fatigue.

As it turned out, the worst fears of Santa Anita management were not realized, those fears being that no one would know Santa Anita was even open. While a couple of twists were only modestly received – twilight racing Fridays, free infield admission – there were enough silver linings to justify the trouble, and that Santa Anita Park would not fall victim to the drab sameness of most long meets.

“What’s happened, I feel, is that the smaller, festival-type boutique meets have been perceived as the ones with added value, while the rest of racing was sort of blue collar,” said Keith Brackpool, Santa Anita’s chief executive. “I’ve never seen it that way. I think we can also offer a premium product over an elongated period of time.

“There was a great deal of natural concern in the racing community as to how do you keep the buzz going if you’re out there for six months?” Brackpool said. “We’ve had a great meet in terms of purses and in terms of handle. And a great meet in terms of introducing new people and groups to the game. And I think you do that because you work at it, and you offer the facility and the product at the same time.”

Of course, purses and handle are interrelated, and what is a marketing department for if not to introduce new people and targeted groups to the game? Brackpool did not list live attendance among the extended meet’s achievements, with the exception of those three giddy afternoons when hometown hero California Chrome did his thing on a national Triple Crown stage.

“Any of us can go out and buy attendance with all sorts of things that have nothing to do with racing, just to say your attendance is up,” Brackpool said. “For us, it’s a lot more of a targeted marketing plan, of getting people to a lot of different spaces at the track rather than just shooting for an attendance number. Getting people excited and addicted to the sport is far more important to me than five or six thousand people coming in for an unrelated event, never having a bet, and never coming back.

“Our ontrack handle number is up over last year, and our numbers are significantly up over the comparable Hollywood dates last year,” Brackpool added. “That, to me, is the real data.”

Santa Anita reopens Sept. 25 with a five-week meet that will include the Breeders’ Cup on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. With millions already spent during his regime on renovations to the Turf Club and clubhouse, Brackpool confirmed that there are more facility changes planned during the offseason.

However, Brackpool could not predict when a long-awaited project to modernize the aging Santa Anita stables might commence. The expense of compliance with environmental requirements over wastewater treatment has stalled any significant backstretch improvements.

“We’re fully engaged in the conversations over that process, and I’ve been pleased with the progress we’ve made in the last couple of months,” Brackpool said. “In the meantime, we’re building out our training center at San Luis Rey, adding capacity down there, and installing a new dirt track here at Santa Anita. The stables and the backside are very much next.”

Let’s hope “next” comes sooner than later.

New San Juan

A tip of the cap to racing secretary Rick Hammerle and his Santa Anita racing-office crew for staying the course of the long meet. There were days they probably wanted to join hands and jump from the top of the grandstand, but as it turned out, racetrackers are every bit as resilient as ever, and the show went on ... and on and on.

The closing-day San Juan Capistrano is the only race displaced from the traditional Santa Anita dates to find a home during the new stretch. The race brings its own rich history and replaces the old Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park, so let the Sunset rest in peace. Ron McAnally, who won both the San Juan and the Sunset with John Henry, will be favored to win Sunday’s closer with his classy new shooter from Chile, Quick Casablanca.