09/25/2013 3:58PM

Santa Anita: Renovations spice up Breeders' Cup meeting

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Benoit & Associates
Fans opening day will be greeted by a newly renovated mezzanine (above) and other improvements.

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Get comfortable.

Starting Friday, approximately seven of the next nine months of Thoroughbred racing in Southern California will be held at Santa Anita, which opens a 24-day autumn meeting on Friday highlighted by the Breeders’ Cup races on Nov. 1-2. The six-week season will present a mix of familiar and new elements for racing fans who have made the picturesque racetrack one of the most popular in the United States.

The racing itself is similar to past seasons, with the first two weekends dominated by major prep races for the Breeders’ Cup, which is being held at Santa Anita this year for the fourth time since 2008. Saturday’s program is exceptional, with five Grade 1 races certain to produce prominent Breeders’ Cup runners.

It is the setting for those races that has undergone changes.

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Over the summer, the track underwent a renovation to sections of the grandstand and clubhouse which will see plenty of use in coming years.

With the closure of Betfair Hollywood Park in late December for development, Santa Anita will have an expanded role on the Southern California Thoroughbred circuit. The winter-spring meeting, which has typically ended in late April, will be extended to late June next year.

The summertime refurbishment had a price tag of approximately $15 million.

The interior of the mezzanine level has been brightened considerably. Gone is a design that looked like a holdover from the late 1970s, replaced with new food options, a horseshoe-shaped bar in the middle of the room, a massive upgrade in the quality and number of televisions, and a more open feel to betting areas.

In the box seats and clubhouse dining sections, tables and seating have been replaced, and the director’s room has been expanded to improve viewing. The clubhouse dining area has been expanded to include a section just past the finish line – previously free seating – with an outstanding view of the stretch run.

In the interior of the clubhouse, a sports bar and a remodeling of the Chandelier Room are still under way, with the goal of having those areas fully ready by the Breeders’ Cup.

Tuesday, during a press tour of the grandstand improvements, track chairman Keith Brackpool said he is hopeful the changes will appeal to all levels of racing fans.

“If you’re an owner, it’s the thrill of being here that makes the experience,” Brackpool said. “If you’re a casual fan, it has to be far more entertaining than it is to sit at home.”

Brackpool hopes the changes at Santa Anita will contribute to repeat visitors, and not just customers lured by once-a-season promotions.

The test will come during the next month. Top racing days, such as Saturday or Breeders’ Cup weekend, draw large crowds, but an uptick in audiences on weekdays or during quieter weekends will show whether the improvements have had an immediate effect.

“In the last 20 years, California has done a very good job of getting people to the track for the first time,” Brackpool said. “We’ve done an appalling job of getting them to come a second time.”

The fields are large on Friday, with 107 horses over nine races, including two races with also-eligible lists. The day’s top race is the $100,000 Eddie D Stakes on the hillside turf course.

Racing secretary Rick Hammerle estimates there are approximately 3,000 Thoroughbreds in training in Southern California. “Whatever the number is, I think it’s healthier than what it’s been in the last few years,” Hammerle said.

Hammerle hopes to build on a successful Del Mar summer meeting, which saw a rise in average field size from 8.66 runners in 2012 to 8.79 this year.

“People have horses to run,” Hammerle said. “We hope it continues. It should give us some momentum. I anticipate getting off to a good start.”