12/22/2014 1:26PM

Revamped stakes schedule highlights Santa Anita winter-spring meet

Emily Shields
Game On Dude wins the Santa Anita Handicap for the third time at the 2013-14 winter-spring meet.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Happy holidays – settle in and get comfortable.

There is a holiday for Southern California racing fans in late December – the opening day of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting on Friday.

Few days in American racing are as highly anticipated as opening day at Santa Anita on Dec. 26. The track may have only concluded its autumn meeting on Nov. 2, but the day after Christmas is one celebrated by racing fans.

Smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, the racing program is outstanding, and the anticipation of a new racing year sustains enthusiasm for owners, trainers, and jockeys looking for the big horse, and bettors seeking the perfect pick five or pick six ticket, or just some great racing.

:: DRF Live: Get real-time updates and insights from DRF reporters and handicappers on Friday

Put the show on display a few miles in front of the San Gabriel Mountains, and the scenery matches the excitement of the sport.

Santa Anita opens its 68-day winter-spring meeting on Friday, a season that runs through April 19. Days later, on April 25, the track launches its 38-day spring-summer meeting that stretches to June 28.

This is the second year for such a schedule, the fallout of life in Southern California racing without Hollywood Park, which closed at the end of 2013.

The 2013-14 marathon season was a lesson for track officials on how to manage and promote such a lengthy race meeting.

“We learned that we can do it,” said racing secretary Rick Hammerle.

When a nine-race program begins on Friday at noon Pacific, Santa Anita will have a tough act to follow. First, there is the weather. It hardly rained during the 2013-14 season, the effects of a severe drought disrupting only the final weekend of February during the winter-spring season earlier this year.

There has been badly needed rain in recent weeks, and more is expected in coming months. That may mean a few races will be switched from turf to dirt.

Then there is the sport itself.

A month into the 2013-14 season, a statebred colt named California Chrome romped home in the California Cup Derby, the first of three stakes wins at the meeting that included a stylish victory in the Santa Anita Derby. The win streak continued in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and California racing fans had a star to embrace.

:: SANTA ANITA OPENING DAY: Get PPs, watch Friday's card live

In early March, Game On Dude became the first horse to win the track’s signature race, the Santa Anita Handicap, three times.

While the admired Game On Dude was retired in September, the adored California Chrome is very much part of the upcoming season. He is scheduled to make his 2015 debut in the $500,000 San Antonio Stakes on Feb. 7, a race that could draw a strong field that includes Bayern, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November, and Shared Belief, the champion 2-year-old male of 2013.

Such a lineup is a racetrack promoter’s dream, but may be the lone occasion those three run against each other in coming months. The lure of the $10 million Dubai World Cup in the United Arab Emirates on March 28 could attract one or two of those horses onto an airplane and away from an appearance in the historic $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7.

“We’ll always have that” to deal with, Hammerle said of Dubai. “But our race is the first Grade 1 of the year at the classic distance.”

The Big Cap purse was raised $250,000 this year, and a strong field is expected. The race had a purse of $1 million from 1986 to 2009.

The San Antonio is part of a revamped stakes schedule. The Grade 2 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds, a race with a history of its own, has been eliminated from the early season schedule. Without the Strub on the calendar, the purse for the San Antonio was raised $200,000, to a record $500,000.

Those are the some of the major events in coming months, along with the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 4 that is expected to play a pivotal role as usual in the buildup to the Triple Crown. The Southern California-based 2-year-olds of 2014 may develop into a stellar group of 3-year-olds in 2015, including American Pharoah, Dortmund, Firing Line, Ocho Ocho Ocho, and Texas Red.

Those are some that are already known. New names will emerge in coming months. The celebration of racing begins Friday.