09/25/2013 5:01PM

Jay Hovdey: Santa Anita braces for the long haul

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Opening-day stakes namesake Eddie Delahoussaye has been an unofficial ambassador for racing since his retirement from the saddle.

Upon his purchase of Santa Anita Park in 1998 for $126 million, the Austro-Canadian auto parts magnate Frank Stronach was crystal clear about his desire to gain a greater share of the California racing calendar. He saw no reason that a property such as Santa Anita should be restricted to only a few months of vigorous operation each year. He insisted that tracks should be allowed to compete for customers, thereby allowing “free enterprise,” in his words, to reign.

Be careful what you wish for.

Beginning on Friday, with the opening of its 24-day autumn meet, Santa Anita Park will be the only game in town for 30 of the next 36 weeks, breaking only for the Hollywood Park swan song in November and part of December. That’s a mini-monopoly by one track of more than seven months never seen before in California, a precedent so dramatic that no one even dares predict what might happen. If they do, it’s only a guess.

The autumn meet, at least, holds a degree of certainty, even in these uncertain times. These dates have been part of the Southern California landscape since 1969, when the Oak Tree Racing Association began a series of long-term leases with successive Santa Anita ownerships. Since the fall of 2011 Santa Anita has taken full control of the autumn package.

Not so coincidentally, the Breeders’ Cup has come on board in a big way for Santa Anita’s autumn meet. On Nov. 1 and 2, the Cup’s 30th presentation will be the second of three straight to be staged in the dry, warm (sometimes smoke-filled) air of Southern California.

Whether or not the promise of a Breeders’ Cup at the end of the meet means a boost in overall business is problematic. Certainly, management will be able to tap into what buzz there is, but in real terms the promotion, execution, and success of the Breeders’ Cup is a Breeders’ Cup show. The rest of the autumn meet will stand or wobble on the strength of the overall Southern California racing economy.

After a three-week break for racing at the L.A. County Fair, Santa Anita management can pray that there is still some momentum left from a strong summer season at Del Mar. Unfortunately, in terms of ontrack numbers, the majority of Del Mar’s customers are locals who do their racing at Del Mar, not 100 miles (and untold freeway hours) to the north at Santa Anita.

Complicating the projections for Santa Anita is the nagging presence of one last Hollywood meet, where late-season numbers always have dragged far behind any of the other meets on the circuit. However, Hollywood management told the commissioners at the most recent meeting of the California Horse Racing Board that interest is high for the upcoming finale and that inquiries for ticket and table reservations have exponentially increased. Whether this is a function of sincere nostalgia for the passing of a California racing landmark or morbid curiosity remains to be seen. It could simply be a function of what CHRB chairman David Israel described as a fool-proof marketing tool: Hang out a sign that says “Going Out of Business.”

“New and Improved” is another tried-and-true gimmick, and Santa Anita management will be trotting this one out beginning on Friday when the remodeled areas of the clubhouse and former turf club are unveiled to the public. They will also get a chance to witness a rocking good rendition of the $150,000 Eddie D Stakes at about 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course, with a field that includes a tantalizing mix led by Caracortado, Unbridled’s Note, Rosengold, Chips All In, Majestic City, and Huntsville.

Among the crowd at a preview of the renovations was the man himself, Eddie Delahoussaye, for whom the opening-day feature is named. There has been some rebranding of stakes names at the meet, but hopefully this one will stick.

“Never mind that,” Delahoussaye said. “I just hope they get people out here to see what they’ve done. For some people it will take getting used to, but I think it’s about time we moved into 2013.”

In retirement Delahoussaye, who just turned 62, has been buying and selling bloodstock and acting as racing’s unofficial ambassador wherever he goes. He and his wife, Juanita, have plans to build a home in their native Louisiana at some point. But in the meantime he would love to see a resurgence in the California sport he helped make so popular.

“Look, they just sold $280 million worth of yearlings at Keeneland,” Delahoussaye said. “That’s got to mean something. Hopefully it means we’ll get new owners in the game. Anyway, I give away passes to the track every time I get a chance. Anything to get the word out, because once people come, they love the game.”

◗ Ask me what I was doing on Sept. 27 eight years ago and I will point southward in the direction of a San Diego hospital where, at the end of a sleepless night and a long day, Lorelei Judith Krone poked her perfect little nose into this world thanks to the efforts of her mother, retired Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone. Dad was, as dads are, pretty useless.

Since then Lorelei has visited the jockeys’ rooms at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, and Doncaster, in England, where she made Lester Piggott smile, and twirled in every winner’s circle along the way. When she learned that Santa Anita’s opening day was on her birthday she thought that was a pretty cool present and promised to be there as soon as her busy schedule allowed.

Forego137 More than 1 year ago
The closing of Hollywood Park will change racing in California and I don't mean in a good way. Racing is becoming like Las Vegas, where they control the winnings, if you have been in the game as many years as I have been you can clearly see these changes already happening, just look at the recently concluded Del Mar meet, I have never seen so many pick 6 carryovers like Del Mar had this year, racing is becoming like playing a slot machine, it only pays out when the machine is set to pay out after intrest in the machine starts to fade then it is set up to start paying out again to draw intrest in the machine and once it gets back to that level again it stops paying out again. Hmmm....... sound familiar. Stay tuned for this one.
Dale Tillotson More than 1 year ago
Julie and youngsters is always a winning daily double, she was so gracious to all the young ones at trackside
Bob More than 1 year ago
Long haul is right! Santa Anita will soon be a mirror image of Calder, Monmouth Park and Woodbine where they run nonstop for six straight months filling the schedule with six horse fields that have a last one scratch before post-time....Hell, if you save your program you will be able to use it a week later when the same horses are running against each other again! The problem with racing in the U.S. is that there is too much of it! Why it is that everyone EXCEPT track managers and the local racing commissions can see this is beyond me! As for Frank Stronarch, he has personally done more to destroy racing in the U.S. than any other single individual in modern history. He destroyed the quality of racing in Northern California; turned Gulfstream into a second-rate track that hasn't hosted a Breeders Cup since he took over and he ran Lone Star Park into the ground before being forced to dump the track to save his failing "entertainment" enterprise and it looks like he is on his way to doing the same to Santa Anita!
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Nothing more needs to be said, you hit the nail on the head Bob.
philcoforde More than 1 year ago
Hovdey = MUST READ
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Correct.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Why did they get rid of the name Ancient Title??? Such a great name and horse.
Jeffrey More than 1 year ago
The names of the new stakes races are too horrid to be true. The marketing team that concocted these names was probably trying to resonate with a more modern audience. In the process, they demonstrated a wanton disregard for the sport's history and traditions. I would think it is important to create continuity from year to year and generation to generation. Many fans have lasting emotional attachments to these venerable races.
AzHorsePlayer More than 1 year ago
250k Grade 1's for the hosting track of the Breeders Cup....pathetic...wake up California before you lose Racing like you did football
Jeffrey More than 1 year ago
I find it amusing that horseplayers care whether or not a Grade 1 has a 250K purse or a 750K purse. Ultimately, what's important are large competitive fields. We have seen countless examples of million dollar purses attracting a prohibitive favorite and a few pretenders who are competing for 2nd place money. At this point, California racing has bleak prospects. It is nearly impossible for them to raise purses. They have alienated many of their loyal fans by implementing prohibitive takeout raises (e.g. they now charge 22.68% on doubles and exactas, which compares unfavorably to the 18.25%-19% we see in KY and NY). Innovative growth-oriented ideas like exchange wagering and takeout reductions have been rejected. Thus, they lack the revenue to raise purses. If you want to see how it's done correctly look at tracks like Kentucky Downs, which simultaneously grew handle (43.98% increase last year), increased field size, and lowered takeout.
Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
I love the closing line about an 8 year old's busy schedule!
James Ronan More than 1 year ago
One of the more intelligent suggestions those made by Mike below, seems to make eminently good sense to this 35 year practitioner of this fabulous skill of thoroughbred analysis. The dog fighting among racetracks never seems to stop, unification around a common goal of introducing the general public to this wondrous sport and intellectual exercise should be the priority for all of us. Win or lose my times at the racetrack alone or with a female companion have always been terrific affairs. Most of the times I've won but the research involved has made the effort worthwhile. Frankly what could possibly be better than getting a lady to smile anywhere, but the track is icing on the cake. All the best to you Mr. Jay Hovdey and your lovely bride and daughter, may you entertaining columns continue for a long time....
Stewart Wolinsky More than 1 year ago
"Most of the time you have won at the track", good for you At least there's someone out there who can beat this game.
Jeffrey More than 1 year ago
Greetings Stewart, I loved your comment and gave it a thumbs up. Unfortunately, oppressive takeout virtually annihilates any chance of beating this game. We are all doubly disadvantaged when a select group of bettors is given substantial takeout reductions (i.e. rebates) at our expense.
Dennis More than 1 year ago
A big Happy Birthday to Lorelei and the family.
mike More than 1 year ago
One day racing should sit down and unify-with the world of simulcasting, let the small venues race mon-thur and the larger ones fri-sun/this will guarantee large fields-also cut back to 9 races max-This year at Saratoga weekend races were ending 7pm??? why? by 3 its getting boring-problem with racing is no on want to work with each other-example gulf-c-alder-plenty of money to share and make a great product-nope lets have a pissing contest to see who is the big dog /and what will happen-the fans will go to the casino
Stewart Wolinsky More than 1 year ago
This makes too much sense for them to try it. This is why Horse Racing is so popular in other countries like England, Japan, and Australia. It's much more an event in those when they race. Your good idea doesn't seem to cut jobs, which is a key. The only California racing I follow is when they go to Del Mar. At other times there are very small fields, 8 race cards, too many 3-5's.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Great point, NYhas problems to, I go to the sport book in the morning and there are dozens of scratches. So they get a lot of small field and 3-5 as well. Then what about the people like me who don't like all turf races they have alot. 6/9 races yesterday day were on the grass. They have twelve horses on grass and 7 on dirt. 10 to 6 when you count the scratches
noalaistoday More than 1 year ago
Australia does as Mike suggest about minor and major tracks. Gee I wonder why Horse Racing is so popular there. They have casino's, They have major sporting events. They have summer and winter sports cycles. Yet racing down under is extremely popular. What they don't have as many of..is greedy politicians screwing everything up. I am sure they have some but ours take the cake. Just follow NY and NYRA racing politics for a lesson on how to be GREEDY POWER HUNGRY IDIOTS!!!!