01/05/2012 3:54PM

Santa Anita: Business ahead of projection at meeting

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Business figures for the first six days of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting showed sharp gains over the start of the 2010-11 meeting.

Releasing limited data, the track said in a statement Wednesday that ontrack attendance has improved 21 percent, ontrack handle was up 11 percent, and all-sources handle, including simulcasting and account wagering nationwide, increased by 14 percent.

One reason for the higher figures has been ideal recent weather in Southern California. There has been no rain since before Christmas, and temperatures have been in the 70s. No rain is forecast for the next week.

“We are enjoying the weather,” track president George Haines said. “We’re off to a great start.

“This is beating our projections. Everything is going right for us.”

The track had a strong opening day ontrack attendance of 44,579 on Dec. 26, which was 30 percent higher than the corresponding day in 2010. The big crowd caught track officials off guard to some extent, with lengthy lines for food and drink and at betting windows.

Despite the recent surge in business, there are no immediate plans to increase purses, Haines said. An evaluation will be made in about a month, he said, with the possibility of a purse increase if business remains strong.

“We have to get through these rainy months in January and February and know we’re on solid ground before we do something like that,” he said.

Typically, when California tracks raise purses, a retroactive increase is made to owners whose horses have already raced at the meeting, as well as an increase enacted for future races.

Through Monday, fields have averaged 9.35 starters per race. Last year during a similar period, the track averaged 7.97 starters per race. The overall 2010-11 meeting had an average field size of 7.63 starters. There are 94 horses entered on Saturday’s nine-race program, although two are on the also-eligible list and others are likely to be scratched.

Santa Anita has a four-day racing week for most of January and February. The track is scheduled to shift to a five-day schedule beginning March 7 through the conclusion of the meeting on April 22. Last year, the track had a similar plan, but only ran one Wednesday because of concerns over field size.

An assessment of whether a five-day schedule is feasible this year also will be made in early February, Haines said.

“We’ll look at the horse population in January or early February,” he said.

Mr Gruff back on hillside course

When he races, which is not very often, Mr Gruff has reigned on Santa Anita’s unique hillside turf course, winning five of six starts and two stakes. His only loss on the about 6 1/2-furlong course was a second by a nose in an allowance race two years ago.

Mr Gruff is lightly raced, with 6 wins in 11 starts over nearly four years. He has not run on the hillside course since a win in the Grade 3 San Simeon Handicap in April 2010 and is back on the surface in Sunday’s $100,000 Daytona Stakes. The Daytona has drawn the deepest field for a hillside turf stakes since the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

Trained by Ron Ellis, Mr Gruff must beat Regally Ready, who won the 2011 BC Turf Sprint; Caracortado, winner of the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile last August; and Calimonco, who was third in the Del Mar Mile.

“This could be a Breeders’ Cup preview the way the race sets up,” Ellis said.

The BC Turf Sprint here in November is a long-term goal for Mr Gruff, who races for Gary Broad. The 8-year-old gelding will be raced sparingly after Sunday’s race.

“Our plan is to run him light and try to get him to the Breeders’ Cup,” Ellis said. “He’ll have his races spaced.”