Updated on 09/18/2011 1:46AM

Repeat success won't be easy


ARCADIA, Calif. - Love may be lovelier the second time around. But second novels often fail, sequels can be a flop, and there is no guarantee that what worked once will work again.

This is the uncertainty facing the Santa Anita Park management branch of the corporate racing octopus known as Magna Entertainment, beginning on Tuesday, opening day, and running through April 22. Led by Santa Anita president Ron Charles, the Arcadia crew will find out in the coming weeks if the dream season of a year ago was the real deal, or just a tease, because sometimes the hardest act to follow may be your own.

By most modern standards, the 2005-06 meet was nothing short of a resurrection. The highlight was the crowd of 54,189 that showed up for the Santa Anita Derby. These are real, live customers, mind you. The kind that buy hot dogs and programs, stand in line, interact, and sometimes even spread the word that - compared to their latest Nascar experience - they actually had a pretty good time.

The biggest betting day last year was the Santa Anita Handicap program, attracting $24.2 million from all reported sources. Ontrack handle last year averaged more than $2 million, a significant number these days, while average ontrack attendance improved to 7,849, though it was pulled well below the magic 10,000 mark by hard-sell weekday programs.

In terms of star power, the good news is that the two horses who anchored those banner days will be back in action at the 2006-07 meet. Brother Derek, hero of the 2006 Santa Anita Derby, leads the field for the $250,000 Malibu Stakes on opening day, while Lava Man, winner of the 2006 Santa Anita Handicap, is scheduled to run at least twice at the meet.

Mix in a cast of entertaining grass horses from the wellspring stables trained by Bobby Frankel, Patrick Biancone, and Richard Mandella. Add the potential of youthful excitement from Bob Baffert and the new West Coast string of Todd Pletcher. Then top them off with a jockey colony that is beginning to look more substantial by the day, courtesy of veterans Alex Solis, Garrett Gomez, Victor Espinoza, Corey Nakatani, Richard Migliore, Jon Court, David Flores, Aaron Gryder, and Martin Pedroza. No one can say the ingredients are anything less than choice.

Still, Ron Charles is not about to get cocky. No California track exists in a vacuum, even if it has the advantage of a fabulous view of the San Gabriel Mountains, immaculate grounds, and a facility on the list of historical buildings.

The Santa Anita opener follows hard on the heels of a Hollywood Park autumn meet that drew only 4,790 per day, including just 5,894 on the final Saturday of the meet for the Hollywood Futurity. The Hollywood meet did seem to reap benefits from the installation of Cushion Track, as evidenced by a field size increase of one horse per race. As a direct result, average handle showed an encouraging rise over the corresponding 2005 numbers (although, if memory serves, the 2005 autumn meet at Hollywood was conducted without grass racing, thus lowering the bar for any kind of parimutuel improvement).

"I take some comfort in the fact that Hollywood's numbers indicate there is more horse inventory for us to work with," said Charles late last week as the opener approached. "Otherwise, based on their attendance, we're looking at what appears to be zero interest in racing, except for the die-hard fans, and we're faced with jump-starting the industry by trying to bring 30,000 fans to the track the day after Christmas.

"But that's what we have to do," Charles went on. "We need to bring the fans back to the racetrack. It's the only way we're going to revitalize horse racing, by giving them the ontrack experience, and in the process making Santa Anita that destination spot it once was."

Charles is hard-boiled about the realities. There will be no more opening days like 1986, when a Malibu featuring Derby winner Ferdinand and Preakness winner Snow Chief helped attract 65,954 to the track. He also knows that bad winter weather - like Santa Anita experienced in 2005 - could trash even the best-laid plans. But until he has exhausted all possible marketing avenues, Charles will not concede that Southern California tracks must settle for a few thousand customers rattling around massive grandstands on weekends. Santa Anita is not, after all, Aqueduct.

Extensive offseason surveys have told Charles and his staff that there could be hope for a revitalization of attendance. To seed the idea, free Santa Anita admission passes are distributed liberally.

"The one thing abundantly clear in our polling is that the thing racing fans liked the most about Santa Anita was the atmosphere," Charles said. "Even on the biggest days, it even seemed as if people not only accepted any inconveniences of a large crowd, the size of the crowd actually added enjoyment to the day."

Charles and his marketing group - led by marketing VP Allen Gutterman and the advertising strategists Chuck Winner and David Bienstock, both horse owners - are working with a $5 million budget heavy on television ad buys, geared toward the corners of the airwaves where potential customers are most likely to lurk.

They are complemented by the publicity department of Mike Willman, a radio and TV host and horse owner, and the broadcasting department of Amy Zimmerman, a lifelong horse enthusiast who has hired veteran producer Steve Nagler, a horse owner and respected horseplayer, to craft the daily HRTV telecasts from Santa Anita.

"These are people not only good at their jobs, they really love the game," said Charles, who, not surprisingly, owns racehorses. "I think that makes a difference."

If it does, the proof will be found in the Santa Anita stands.