12/26/2010 5:14PM

New surface, glimpse of sun the big attractions on opening day

Jay Privman
With the track rated fast despite a week of near-constant rain, the horses break from the gate for the third race on Sunday at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - For the past week, Southern California has been pounded by rain, and there was one last exclamation point here Saturday night into Sunday morning. But the rain moved on, the sun peeked through the clouds, and, like the swallows that return every year to San Juan Capistrano, fans flocked to opening day at Santa Anita on Sunday.

The lures were many - a great card, a calendar giveaway, and chance to get out of the damn house after being cooped up much of the past week - but for many handicappers and horsemen, one of the primary attractions was Santa Anita’s return to a natural surface of sand, clay, and silt following three years of racing on synthetic material.

In addition, this was the first day of racing at Santa Anita - Southern California’s racing showplace - since April, owing to the traditional fall Oak Tree meeting being moved across town to Hollywood Park while the new track was installed.

The surface got a workout with the recent wet weather, but received universal praise for its condition for the start of Sunday’s card. The track was rated good for the first race, but was upgraded to fast for the second.

“It feels good, and not just because I won the race,” said jockey Victor Espinoza, who brought Skellytown ($11.60) between horses in a thrilling, four-horse finish to take the opener. “It’s got a good base, a good cushion. So far, it looks good. With all the rain they got, it seems like it handled it very well.”

Patrick Valenzuela, a close third in the opener on 8-5 favorite Capture the Call, said horses were “getting over it really good.”

“They did a good job keeping it together,” Valenzuela said. “It feels really good.”

The new track has far more sand than the old Santa Anita surface. As such, it should hold water well during the winter. The return to dirt, and the higher purses owing to an increase in takeout on exotic wagers, has lured the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen, who has his top assistant, Scott Blasi, overseeing things here. Blasi, who in previous winters was stationed at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, was happy with the way the track responded to the recent weather.

“I think it’s a great sign for a racetrack as to how much water it can take, and this track did that well,” Blasi said after Sunday’s first race. “This track seems very similar to New Orleans in my mind.”

The rain was heavy enough that it did force Sunday’s grass races to be moved to the main track, including the Grade 2 Sir Beaufort Stakes.

First post Sunday was at noon Pacific. By 12:30 p.m., the box-seat section was jumping with activity, and a carved sandwich stand on that level had a line 10-people deep. Even after the day’s second race, cars were still streaming into a clubhouse parking section that was already near capacity, and a line of cars stretched east down Huntington Drive, trying to get in.

Southern California racing has been a soap opera the past few years. Sunday made it feel even more so, as if the past three years at Santa Anita, under a controversial synthetic surface, had merely been a dream.