04/25/2006 11:00PM

Will Hollywood rise to occasion?

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In terms of tough acts to follow, unveiling a racing meet after the socko-boffo, just-concluded Santa Anita season is kind of like coming onstage with spinning plates and a kazoo after Madonna has just brought down the house.

The cold numbers are impressive enough. Offering 86 programs, the average daily attendance during Santa Anita was 9,341 (next stop, 10,000!), representing an increase of 15 percent over the rain-soaked 2004-05 season. The average daily handle from the ontrack customers rose accordingly, by 11 percent, and the average daily handle from all sources jumped by 9.3 percent, hitting $11.6 million.

A glance back 25 years is every bit as enlightening. For the Santa Anita meet that ended on April 22, 1981 - also a season of 86 days - the average daily attendance was 30,902, and the average daily handle was just shy of $5.2 million.

(There will be a brief musical interlude while those strange numbers sink in: "Where the turf/meets the surf/down at old Del Mar/take a train/take a plane/take a . . .")

Amazing, isn't it? More than three times the customers, betting half as much. And don't you know that today's racetrack operators would be sorely tested if given a chance to go back to those bygone days? More bodies through the gates meant more unshared revenue in terms of parking, admissions, programs, and concessions, along with higher operating costs for staffing and maintenance. As for the handle, the track's cut of that $5.2 million was a ripe 5 percent or so, with no need to spread the wealth among out-of-state clients and advanced-wagering companies.

Of course, those days will never return, especially since racetracks continue to seek ways to spread their racing signals to the far corners of the globe. Among the major racetrack companies, the $20 million daily average is the Holy Grail, and who's to say it won't be reached sooner than later?

As for attendance, there is always hope. There were days at Santa Anita this year that the place actually buzzed, as if it were the L.A. place to be. Vigorous marketing was part of the answer, along with benign stretches of dry, pleasant weather. There was also a firm commitment on the part of management to be visible, responsive, and accountable to its customers and its performers, with an almost total embargo on passing the buck back to the Magna mothership in Canada. Okay, so there's still the heavily subsidized, highly unnatural Sunshine Millions, but nobody's perfect.

A quarter of a century ago (sounds a lot longer than 25 years), the Hollywood Park 1981 springtime meet actually topped Santa Anita in terms of average daily handle. Chances are it won't be happening this year, but at least Hollywood Park deserves the benefit of the doubt as its new owners, the Bay Meadows Land Co., jump into action this week with its first spring meet.

"I wish them all the success possible," said Richard Shapiro, the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. "I would love to see what I thought was an incredible meet at Santa Anita continue, and show that racing is certainly alive and can be viable."

Shapiro's board, unlike most previous CHRB's, has been aggressive in its oversight of such fundamental racing association issues as marketing budgets and racing surfaces. He has more recently directed his racing dates committee to shift into strategic planning mode to anticipate changes and opportunities in the coming years.

Shapiro makes no apologies, noting that it is the board's mandate to make sure California's licensed associations are promoting and administering the sport to maximum effectiveness. And since it is no secret that the Bay Meadows Land Co. has an ambitious non-racing property development plan to go along with its intention to run Hollywood Park as a racetrack for now, it stands to reason that the racing board would be watching the track's every move.

"I don't think they're under a microscope," Shapiro said. "On the other hand, we do need to be mindful of what their future goals are. Certainly, you have to take heed of the success of Santa Anita and see if that can be replicated at Hollywood Park, and see if they are going to spend the money and the energy to do that."

Shapiro had a chance to peruse the advertising and marketing plans for the Hollywood Park meeting.

"I'm not a marketing person," he said. "There was considerable thought put into it, but you never know whether some of the planned promotions and marketing efforts will be sufficient. I do know that Magna spent an inordinate amount of money on advertising for Santa Anita, which people probably saw if they watched any local television at all, and it paid off."

Of course, it could also be said that Santa Anita spent exactly the right amount of money on advertising and promotions, given the success of the meet.

"I will stand corrected," Shapiro said. "I would change it to the 'necessary' amount. Racing associations have to step up and do that, and it will pay dividends. I go back to the days when Hollywood Park was number one. It's probably unrealistic to expect that, but if the people at Hollywood Park are willing to try, I'll be thrilled."