Updated on 12/27/2013 3:46PM

Santa Anita attracts 30,540 on opening day

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Benoit & Associates
Gary Stevens urges 13-1 outsider Heir Kitty to victory in the Grade 1 La Brea, the first of three stakes on opening day Thursday.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The first step of the new journey for Southern California racing was a positive one on Thursday, as Santa Anita opened for a spectacular day of racing with weather ordered up by the Chamber of Commerce, only four days after the plug was pulled on Betfair Hollywood Park.

A crowd of 30,540 attended opening day, an increase of nearly 12 percent from the 27,273 that attended a year ago, when opening day was on a Wednesday.

Betting, though, was down. Overall handle was $13,246,238, a decrease of 2 percent from $13,494,676 a year ago.

The crowd, lured by the weather, two Grade 1 stakes, and a the traditional opening-day giveaway of a wall calendar, made its way to a track that will get a full workout over the next six months, with racing being held here through late June because of the closing of Hollywood Park.

There are more changes afoot. The upper section of the box seats, near the wire and above the walkway, are gone, with four large luxury boxes being constructed there. There was plenty of open space in the box seats on most days in recent years. On Thursday, the large crowd, coupled with less space in the area near the wire, gave the box seats an aura of hyperactivity.

One constant was jockey Gary Stevens. Less than a year into his celebrated comeback, Stevens won the La Brea Stakes, the first Grade 1 of the meet, with Heir Kitty.

Stevens was the star of the Breeders’ Cup here less than two months ago, winning the Classic with Mucho Macho Man and the Distaff with Beholder. He said the main track was in far better shape than at the Breeders’ Cup, specifically the lesser amount of kickback, a factor that made it comfortable for Heir Kitty to sit behind dueling leaders without being under assault by stinging dirt.

Dennis Moore, formerly the track superintendent at Hollywood Park, was recently hired by Santa Anita, giving the track surface the daily ontrack supervision it had lacked.

This was the first opening day under the direction of Keith Brackpool, hired as Santa Anita’s chairman earlier this year, and it’s one he won’t soon forget. In addition to the encouraging on-track business, Brackpool’s talented 3-year-old turf colt Gervinho captured the Sir Beaufort Stakes despite being bumped sharply at the top of the stretch.

Asked how his day was going, Brackpool laughed.

“For me?” he said, smiling.

“Opening day is always such an enigma. It’s a huge crowd, expectations are so high, but your staff doesn’t get here until 9,” Brackpool said of starting the day after Christmas. “The first six races, I was walking around, seeing how things were going operationally, then I sat down for the seventh race, thought my horse had lost all chance when he was bumped, then he came with a run and won. It’s been very exciting.”

The racing was quite formful to begin, with favorites winning the first four races.

But longshots prevailed in much of the pick six sequence, leading to a carryover of $118,415 going into Friday’s card. Heir Kitty won the La Brea at 18-1, and then Shakin It Up captured the Malibu at 17-1.

Shakin It Up was the third winner on the day for trainer Bob Baffert, who earlier Thursday announced that New Year’s Day, whom he trained to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 2, had to be retired because of a chip atop a sesamoid bone in his left hind leg.

 

“The game is a roller coaster,” Baffert said. “This is why I had a heart attack. It’s always something.”