12/27/2004 1:00AM

Meet gets off to good start

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita launched its winter-spring meeting on Sunday with the largest ontrack audience since 1999, booming handle, and an enthusiastic crowd celebrating what has become an added holiday for racing fans.

On a cool, overcast day, a crowd of 31,874 contributed to an all-sources handle of $15,769,125. The figures marked respective increases of 13 percent and 3 percent over the corresponding day last year.

Sunday's ontrack attendance was the highest on opening day since 1999, when 44,018 turned out. Sunday's ontrack handle of $5,226,136 marked an increase of 10 percent over 2003.

"It was a good day, considering the weather," said George Haines, Santa Anita's general manager. "It was cooler than we wanted, but we're happy with it."

The upswing in business could be a harbinger for a successful meeting, Haines said. Last year, Santa Anita struggled during the first month of the meeting and eventually cut purses by 6.5 percent.

"I think it sets the tone," Haines said of opening day. "People come out and get a feel for racing again."

The ontrack attendance was slightly lower than Haines's projection.

"We were hoping with good weather we could get 35,000," Haines said.

Haines said the track increased its advertising budget for opening day, which accounted for part of the increase.

"The word is out that we're open," he said.

Other factors played a role in the day's success. A top-class program, and the absence of any racing in the area since closing day of the Hollywood Park meeting on the preceding Monday, helped Sunday's business. In addition, the program had an average field size of 9.8 runners - big fields for Southern California.

"This was a bettor's card," Haines said.

Despite the windbreaker weather, Sunday was a day for casual fans as much as the die-hard regulars.

The stroller brigade was prominent on the infield and apron, while the areas around the television banks, showing simulcasting and pro football, were packed with sports fans.

The day was not without problems. Grandstand betting lines were four or five people deep when the second race started. That was a much shorter line than the 20-person wait for food and drinks on the mezzanine level and in the paddock through the early part of the day. There were complaints in the Turf Club and Frontrunner restaurant about long waits for service.

Rafael Balderrama, 37, of nearby South Pasadena, avoided that scene. He arrived early with his wife, two children, and friends. They staked a prime spot along the rail opposite of the sixteenth pole for the early races.

Sunday was the fifth consecutive year the Balderrama family has made an opening-day appearance. They were part of the $2 betting crowd but were determined to find a winner, backing several horses in each race.

"I will have a couple of beers, bet a little, and hope to win," Balderrama said. "This is fun. Opening day is the start of the season. Everyone is in a good mood."

The people who spend their lives in the sport shared his enthusiasm.

Jockey David Flores did not ride a winner on Sunday. He escaped injury in the sixth race when he was unseated from Never at Dusk at the start. Still, Flores was excited about the launch of the Santa Anita season, which he described as being the opposite of the rowdy opening day at Del Mar each July.

"Del Mar is different. It's a party place," Flores said. "This is more of a racing place. People are happy to be here."