12/21/2012 6:01PM

Santa Anita opens with a gift for pick-six bettors

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Benoit & Associates
Santa Anita's opening day features three graded stakes - the Malibu, La Brea, and Sir Beaufort.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Holiday festivities continue one day after Christmas, on Dec. 26, when Santa Anita launches its 2012-13 winter meet amid a celebratory opening-day atmosphere and an appealing nine-race card with three graded stakes.

After nine dark racing days, Southern California horseplayers and horsemen should be champing at the bit for the opener of the 71-day, four-month winter meet.

“The break is the greatest thing in the world,” racing secretary Rick Hammerle said. “People are walking around, smiling, talking about where they went on vacation. Our guests and bettors, they thrive on that.”

Another thing bettors will thrive on is an innovative twist being planned for the Santa Anita pick six that would effectively reduce the takeout rate to just 3.68 percent for ontrack players. It could bring the wager storming back to popularity.

Santa Anita officials and Thoroughbred Owners of California on Friday were finalizing details of a creative idea that offers a 20 percent rebate bonus to winning ontrack pick six bettors. Takeout for the bet is 23.68 percent; the bonus drops the effective rate to 3.68.

Details have been slow to emerge, and track officials declined comment until the plan is signed, but one TOC source said, “It’s a done deal.”

As of Friday, the proposal faced legal and infrastructure hurdles; none was considered insurmountable. The concept is expected to work like this: Winning pick-six tickets purchased at Santa Anita by an “account-holder,” who must swipe an account card, would receive a 20 percent rebate bonus on non-carryover days.

For example, a $10,000 pick six winner would receive a $2,000 rebate bonus. A $100,000 pick six winner would receive an additional $20,000.

The bonus would be offered regardless of number of winning tickets.

The plan would be funded from the California Marketing Committee and the TOC.

Track president George Haines deferred comment on the plan, which is tentatively scheduled to launch Jan. 1.

The pick six is not the only thing changing this winter at Santa Anita.

Haines has resumed command as the track’s top executive following the autumn resignation of chief executive officer Mark Verge, who held the position for eight months.

Verge resigned soon after Nov. 4 conclusion of the autumn meet. “Mark had a great wealth of ideas that he wanted to implement, and of course you can’t implement every idea in a short amount of time,” Haines said.

Haines added: “The core staff at Santa Anita is very experienced in racing operations; we know how to promote the program. We’re taking some of the things [Verge] did well and bringing them forward, and other things that we think we can improve upon we will.”

Santa Anita’s promotional plans will include an updated website (santaanita.com), increased social media presence such as Twitter (@santaanitapark) and traditional broadcast.

“We’re going to have a larger TV presence,” Haines said. “Santa Anita is an extremely visual venue. You have to see what Santa Anita is all about.”

Live races will be broadcast by HRTV and, for the first time during winter, TVG.

“We are looking forward to the expanded distribution that TVG brings us,” Haines said. “The trending of [advance deposit wagering] has been up, significantly. So we expect that trend to continue.”

Gene Simmons, founding member of the rock group Kiss and respected marketing expert, will continue to have a consultation role in planning promotional strategy. There are no plans for a Kiss concert at Santa Anita.

Further, there are no plans for a return of the widely panned song “My California.” Billed as the official theme song of Santa Anita during the autumn meet and played repeatedly over the public address system, the song has been jettisoned, fans will be happy to learn.

While creative wagers and executive turnover is interesting conservation fodder into the new season, Santa Anita is still a spectacular horse racing venue. And after a week and a half between meets – Betfair Hollywood Park ended Dec. 16 – the entry box should be full.

“There is no reason we shouldn’t come out of the gate swinging,” racing secretary Hammerle said.

Swing they will, with an opening-day card that includes a pair of Grade 1, seven-furlong stakes for 3-year-olds. The $300,000 Malibu (race 8) is for colts and geldings; the $300,000 La Brea (race 4) is restricted to fillies. Less than two months have passed since Santa Anita hosted the Breeders’ Cup, and the spillover will continue.

BC Sprint runner-up The Lumber Guy faces BC Turf Sprint runner-up Unbridled’s Note in the Malibu; Ladies’ Classic runner-up My Miss Aurelia figures to be favored in the La Brea. The Grade 2, $150,000 Sir Beaufort (race 5) for 3-year-olds on grass supports the nine-race card.

Up until autumn, the leading contenders for the Malibu and La Brea had been based in the East or Midwest. Their campaigns resume where they left off, in California, continuing ship-in dominance.

Hammerle recognizes a recent trend handicappers have become accustomed to. The autumn meet at Hollywood included Grade 1 wins by ship-in 2-year-olds Violence (CashCall Futurity), Pure Fun (Hollywood Starlet), and Unbridled Command (Hollywood Derby).

“You need to start with the shippers,” Hammerle said. “Our categories are not as strong as they used to be. We used to go out and crush everybody.”

How long the trend lasts is unknown. “In the long run, I think it’s all cyclical,” Hammerle said. “Sometimes we’re on top, and sometimes we’re not.

“In a couple years, it will even out again. We notice it because it has not been this dramatic for a long time.”

If there is a resurgence of power from a local stable, it is likely to be Bob Baffert’s. His roster is so deep he trains 17 of the 51 horses nominated to the opening-day stakes. He entered three in the La Brea, two in the Sir Beaufort, and four in the Malibu.

Baffert is always a threat at his home track and always looks forward to opening day.

“To me it’s like opening kickoff of the football season,” he said. “It is the first game, a fresh start, a new page. And it’s an exciting tradition to show up with a grandstand full of people the day after Christmas.

“Everybody’s upbeat, and hopefully we will develop some horses for the classics. That’s one of the main reasons we exist, right?”