04/21/2003 12:00AM

Ontrack handle, attendance fall


ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita suffered sharp declines in ontrack business during the winter-spring meeting which ended Sunday.

According to figures released Monday by track officials, average ontrack attendance fell 11 percent to 8,842, the lowest in track history.

Average ontrack handle dropped 7 percent to $2,314,748. Handle from all sources, including Internet and telephone betting, fell 2 percent, to an average of $11,785,178. Internet and telephone betting averaged $492,347.

"I think a lot of the decline has to do with the war and a bad economy," said one track executive, who requested anonymity. "A lot of places where people have to leave the house are down, too. People are watching CNN today."

The track delayed the release of the data by a day to review Internet and telephone betting.

Chris McCarron, the Hall of Fame jockey who became Santa Anita general manager on March 31, said one of his major goals is to restore ontrack business.

Among the horsemen, jockey Patrick Valenzuela won his first Santa Anita riding title and Bob Baffert won a record seventh consecutive training title.

Valenzuela, 40, finished with 94 winners, well ahead of David Flores (69) and Alex Solis (68). Valenzuela missed eight days of racing in late March serving a suspension for riding infractions.

"The eight days off was a hit, but at the same time it was a break," he said. "Now I have the momentum going into Hollywood Park."

Valenzuela has won three riding titles in the last year. He returned from a 22-month absence from suspension for substance abuse problems in December 2001.

He said his goal is success on a national level, that he hopes to challenge Jerry Bailey as the nation's leading rider and gain important mounts throughout the country.

"I'm still not where I want to be," he said. "I want to be where Jerry Bailey is. I think I'm in that position on the West Coast, but I want to do that on the East Coast."

Baffert finished with 43 winners, the same number he had in 2001-2002. Jeff Mullins finished second with 30 winners, his best Santa Anita meeting. Vladimir Cerin and Bobby Frankel tied for third with 25 wins. Frankel led all trainers with 10 stakes wins, one more than Baffert.

Baffert has won every training title at the winter meeting beginning in 1996-97, breaking the previous mark held by Red McDaniel, from 1950-55.

"Does that mean I get a statue?" he said, referring to statues in the paddock garden commemorating the top horsemen in track history. "I wanted them to do a statue before I lost all my hair.

"It's something to be proud of," he said of the title, crediting his staff. "You don't shoot for it. It just happens."

The Mullins-trained Buddy Gil, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby, was voted horse of the meeting.