09/24/2014 11:56AM

Santa Anita meet opens with flurry of stakes over first two weekends

Shigeki Kikkawa
Pacific Classic winner Shared Belief will be favored Saturday in the Awesome Again Stakes, one of 14 stakes in the first two weekends at Santa Anita Park's fall meeting.

ARCADIA, Calif. – It starts with a flourish, with 14 stakes over two weekends, and ends in early November as the focus of the racing world. The highly anticipated Santa Anita autumn meeting begins Friday with a nine-race program, leading up to Breeders’ Cup weekend Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

Similar to last year, Santa Anita has changed a bit over the summer. For the second consecutive year, capital improvements were made in the grandstand and clubhouse, with additional upgrades to the turf terrace dining section of the clubhouse, an expanded number of suites overlooking the racetrack, and the development of a sports bar in a section of the clubhouse seldom used in recent years.

“It’s one of the greatest views of a sports bar possible,” track chairman Keith Brackpool said this week.

All of that provides better viewing of racing, which will be conducted on a new dirt surface installed in July and August. The surface has been used for training since Sept. 1 and has drawn positive reviews from trainers.

The new surface and the turf course will be tested in important races over the 25-day season, which runs through Nov. 2. Beginning Friday with the $100,000 Eddie D Stakes on the hillside turf course, there are 14 stakes through Oct. 5, 12 of which are preps for Breeders’ Cup races.

Saturday’s program includes five Grade 1 races, each worth $300,000, led by the Awesome Again Stakes for older horses. Shared Belief, the unbeaten 3-year-old, will be favored to win for the seventh time in his career and can prove that he deserves to be favored in the $5 million BC Classic on Nov. 1.

For Los Angeles sports fans, there is more than just racing Saturday. Members of the Los Angeles Kings will be in attendance with the coveted Stanley Cup that they won for the second time in team history in June.

Through October, track officials are hopeful that the improvements and good racing will draw customers to the track after the Breeders’ Cup preps and before the championship races are run at the end of the meeting.

“It’s kind of exciting because it’s a short meet,” track president Tom Ludt said. “We hope we’ll get off on a roll. We’re excited to open the new track. It looks like a great opening day.”

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The race meeting was originally scheduled for 23 days, but two days have been added – Oct. 16 and Oct. 29. Last year, the autumn meeting was 24 days and had mixed business results – with ontrack average attendance falling 3.8 percent to 9,520 but average all-sources handle improving 11.4 percent to $15,895,283.

A second round of improvements to the facilities could help reverse that attendance decline.

“All of us in racing have complained that our facilities aren’t what they need to be to attract additional crowds,” Brackpool said. “Our job in the next 12 to 24 months is to see the additional crowds. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Competitive racing plays a paramount role in that success. Friday’s nine-race program drew 94 runners, although six are on also-eligible lists. Racing secretary Rick Hammerle expects strong support through the meeting, not just for early stakes and Breeders’ Cup races but also for overnight races. Last year, the track averaged 8.95 runners per race, virtually the same as the 2012 meeting.

“I know we have more horses here than in the last three, four, or five years,” he said. “A lot of people are coming in asking for stalls, and the stall applications are better than they were.”