12/23/2013 7:56AM

Santa Anita opens long meet, takes on larger role in racing

Susie Raisher
Santa Anita will hold 109 days of racing stretching from Thursday through June 29.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Thursday represents more than the cherished opening day of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting. It starts a new era of racing in California.

With Hollywood Park having closed Dec. 22 and scheduled for residential and commercial development, Santa Anita takes on a greater role in the sport. In past years, the meeting that begins Thursday typically would run until late April. This year, it will continue through June, absorbing most of the former Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting days.

There will be 109 days of racing at Santa Anita from Thursday through June 29. With that comes added responsibility for Santa Anita – serving as the home of Los Angeles-area Thoroughbred racing and working to keep the interest of both dedicated and casual fans through a marathon six-month season.

It is a job that Santa Anita chairman Keith Brackpool embraces.

“It’s what we’re in this business for,” Brackpool said last week.

[Santa Anita opening day: Get PPs, watch Thursday's card live]

Last summer, Santa Anita invested approximately $15 million to upgrade the concession stands, bars, and betting area of the mezzanine level, upgrade the box-seat area, remodel the clubhouse dining area overlooking the track, and redesign the Chandelier Room of the Turf Club.

Most improvements were in place in time for the autumn meeting. Those facilities will get a full test in the coming months.

“Hopefully, the improvements we made earlier this year will stand us in good stead with the existing, returning, and new customers to the track,” Brackpool said. “I’m looking forward to some of the promotions we put together. Make no mistake, it’s a new world for us to go this long.”

The racing schedule through mid-April is largely unchanged from past seasons. The top races are familiar, such as the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap on March 8 and the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 5. The purse of the Santa Anita Derby has been raised from $750,000 for this year’s running.

After opening day, the big event in January will be the Sunshine Millions program on Jan. 25, which has been merged with the California Cup program that was held in the autumn until 2012. The Jan. 25 program features six stakes worth $125,000 to $250,000 each.

There are significant changes to the betting menu this winter. The track has eliminated rolling doubles in favor of three doubles per day – the first two races, the fourth and fifth races, and the last two races. The takeout on those bets has been reduced from 22.68 percent to 18 percent to spur interest. One bet omitted from the menu is the place pick all.

The popular pick fours and pick fives will still be available, with a guaranteed late pick four pool of $500,000 on Thursday.

The real changes begin in April. Instead of wrapping up the winter-spring meeting as it did before, when the circuit switched to Hollywood Park for a spring-summer meeting, Santa Anita will have more than two months left in its meet.

During the winter and spring, racing will be conducted fours day per week, for the most part, through April 13. The following week, there will be two days of racing April 19-20 before the start of the spring-summer portion of the meeting Friday, April 25. With that program, Santa Anita will launch Friday twilight racing – first post will be 3 p.m. Pacific – through June. In May and June, racing will continue on a four-days-per-week basis.

“I’m particularly intrigued and looking forward to twilight Fridays,” Brackpool said.

That many months of racing in one venue will lead to a different calendar of stakes in May and June. The track has published a stakes schedule through April 13, with the remaining schedule expected to be announced as soon as next month.

Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle said the stakes schedule for the final months of the meeting will mirror what had been run in past years at Hollywood Park.

After Hollywood Park closes its barn area in late January, Santa Anita will have a full stable area, with auxiliary stabling at Barretts Sales and Racing at the Los Angeles County Fair, Los Alamitos, and the San Luis Rey Downs training center.

In that regard, 2014 will be quite different, Hammerle said.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Hammerle said. “Change is something that is not taken lightly by some people. Here’s a chance to make things different and better. This will be a challenge for all people in this game. Our barn area will be full, and we’ll have a different group of horsemen here full time.”

What is unclear as the meeting begins is how extensive the turf course will be used, given that it must be preserved through June. The usage will depend on weather conditions in the coming months, Hammerle said.

“We’ll keep a close eye on it,” he said. “We’ll severely limit the number of turf workers. In mid-March, if we’ve had 10 to 12 days of rain and have been off the turf, it will have had a good break. It’s one of the most durable turf courses I’ve seen.”