12/22/2011 2:39PM

Santa Anita: New meet should show off track's back class

Barbara D. Livingston
Bob Baffert will be out for his 10th training title at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The winds of change have blown through Santa Anita in recent months leading up to opening day of its 75th season on Monday.

First, before the fall meet the main track surface went back to being dirt after the Cushion Track/Pro-Ride era. It was out with the new, in with the old.

With Frank Stronach having taken over as the private owner of the track, rather than running it through one of his publicly held companies, Santa Anita is a leaner operation. Several high-profile employees were let go, including vice president of marketing Allen Gutterman and vice president of racing Mike Harlow.

And then two weeks ago came the appropriate coda to this stormy season – hurricane-force winds that topped 100 miles per hour and uprooted large trees, caused extensive damage in the stable area, knocked out power, and left nearby Pasadena declared a disaster area.

“It was very scary, because with the power out, it was dark, and we didn’t know how much damage we had sustained,” said George Haines, the track’s president and general manager. “Fifty percent of the barns had some roof damage. All the barn workers and the grooms pitched in together to clean things up. We got a lot of cooperation.”

Approximately 100 trees were lost on the grounds.

“I cut up a bunch of trees that day,” said trainer Mark Glatt.

Santa Anita officials are hoping that little of that is noticed when the crowds return for the meet’s traditional day-after-Christmas opener. Employees here take great pride in showing off this beloved art deco sports venue. The finishing touches were being applied in the days before the opener. A painter was putting a new coat of white on the paddock railing, the flower beds near the paddock were freshly planted, repairs were being done to the barns.

And, for the first time in several years, the topic of discussion was not focused on the track surface.

“I hope it stays that way,” said Haines, a steadying hand who has worked at Santa Anita for more than 30 years. “We feel the surface is very consistent. We are grading it every Tuesday with a GPS grader, so it’s perfectly balanced. We haven’t made any tweaks to the surface since the autumn meeting. We believe the mixture we have now will work year-round, but we’ll stay on top of it and adjust if needed.

“The less we hear about the track, and the more we hear about the racing, the better.”

The racing should be terrific at this 79-day meet, which runs through April 22. Opening day, which begins at noon Pacific, features four stakes, including a Grade 1 Malibu that drew an outstanding field of 3-year-olds, including Rothko, Smash, and The Factor.

On New Year’s Eve, Test Stakes winner Turbulent Descent is scheduled to run in the Grade 1 La Brea. Later on, Breeders’ Cup race winners Amazombie (Sprint) and Regally Ready (Turf Sprint) will be in action. And the run-up to the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap on March 3 will focus on Game On Dude, the race’s defending champ and the runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the repatriated Rail Trip, who recently rejoined his original trainer, Ron Ellis, after a failed campaign in New York.

The turf division will be enhanced by Hollywood Turf Cup winner Sanagas, a recent private purchase who has been transferred to Peter Miller, and Pressday, an outstanding Australian turf miler now with John Sadler.

One prominent horse who will miss the meet is Acclamation, a three-time Grade 1 winner on this circuit last year, including the Pacific Classic.

“He’s just getting a vacation,” said Bud Johnston, who bred and co-owns Acclamation. “He’ll come back next spring, just like he did this year. We want him around at the end of the year, for the Breeders’ Cup,” which will be held at Santa Anita in 2012.

Patrick Valenzuela, who rode Acclamation to his biggest wins, has retired, but Corey Nakatani has returned. His agent, Ron Anderson, will be pulling double duty by also representing Alan Garcia in New York. Anderson said he plans to fly cross-country each week. Kevin Krigger has relocated from Northern California and will be represented by Valenzuela’s former agent, Tom Knust.

Bob Baffert, who trains Game On Dude, will be shooting for his 10th training title at Santa Anita. The depth of his barn, particularly with 2-year-olds about to turn 3, makes him the favorite, though Sadler and the red-hot Mike Mitchell figure to have a strong say in the outcome.

Steve Asmussen is back for his second straight season, with a high-quality 38-horse barn overseen by his top assistant, Scott Blasi.

“I love this place. It is beautiful,” Asmussen said recently while watching his horses train. “I’m surprised the grandstand is not filled just to watch training.”

There will be plenty of fans in the seats come Monday. Opening day is one of the highlights of the Southern California racing scene. This year, there has been no Thoroughbred racing in the area since Hollywood Park’s fall meeting ended Dec. 18.

“I love that week break,” said Rick Hammerle, the vice president of racing and racing secretary. “It’s better for everybody. Everyone comes back fresh, the bettors included.”

Beginning opening day, tech-savvy bettors will be able to deposit money into an account and take advantage of an ontrack mobile-wagering application at mobile.santaanita.com.

Santa Anita’s popular wall calendar, this year featuring former racehorses who have transitioned to other disciplines, will be given away opening day. Fans should also notice a new infield video board, which has a better picture quality and is shorter than the previous board, so it will not block the pan camera shot when horses are going down the backstretch. There also are new video boards on both sides of the paddock.

Santa Anita’s marketing department is piggybacking on the upcoming HBO series “Luck,” which officially premieres Jan. 29. Concurrent with that, Santa Anita will open a “Luck Lounge,” whose ribbon-cutting will be Jan. 28. It will be in the ground-floor space formerly occupied by the Horse Wizard game, which never caught on.

The Chandelier Room in the Turf Club is getting makeover into a more “woody, oakey type feel,” said Chris Quinn, recently promoted to vice president of marketing.