12/26/2006 12:00AM

Opening day draws crowd


ARCADIA, Calif. - As the field for the second race at Santa Anita on Tuesday neared the start for a downhill turf sprint, jockey Garrett Gomez noticed that cars weren't whizzing by on adjacent Colorado Place. Instead, they were sitting there, bumper to bumper.

Those caught in traffic missed Gomez winning that race with Storm Mate, but they were determined to take part in the festive opening day at Santa Anita. A crowd that track officials conservatively estimated to be in excess of 30,000 battled traffic on streets ringing the track, and shoppers heading to day-after-Christmas sales at the nearby mall, to attend what has become one of the signature days on the Southern California racing calendar.

"They were still filing in," Gomez said.

On a comfortable, overcast day, they came to see a sensational card of racing, which included the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, featuring the star of last year's Santa Anita meeting, Brother Derek. Santa Anita brought out mariachi bands to entertain, and the hitch of Budweiser Clydesdales made an appearance on the main track after the first race. Jay Cohen, the track's horn blower, was flanked by two other horn blowers to bring the horses onto the track for each race.

The allure of the opening-day card, which offered great gambling because of large fields of quality horses, was probably reason enough to come. But combine that with a popular wall calendar that is given away for free on opening day, and a betting populace refreshed by not having had racing on this circuit since Dec. 18, and the 72-year-old track was crackling with energy.

The parking lot on the clubhouse turn filled up before the third race, so patrons were redirected to a large lot on the backstretch that also began to fill rapidly. The box-seat section was overflowing, fans ringed the paddock four deep to get a look at horses in upcoming races, and both the apron in front of the grandstand and the spacious infield were dotted with families out enjoying the afternoon.

Gomez got off to a fast start. After finishing second in the opener, he came back to win the second with Storm Mate ($9.60) and the third with favored Tenfold ($3.60). Gomez said both the main track and turf course were in good shape.

"The track feels normal to me," he said. "It usually takes a few days for it to get hard, or if we get some rain. It's nice. And it's not loose, either. The turf is perfect. It's got a nice cushion. It's nice and lush. Hopefully, they'll keep it like that."

Clinton Potts, who had a slow meeting at Hollywood Park, took a brief lead in the jockey standings by winning the first race, a maiden claimer, with longshot Taylor's Route ($30.40), who beat Gomez and Vidclip by 1 1/2 lengths.