09/25/2013 5:01PM

Jay Hovdey: Santa Anita braces for the long haul

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.