The Sport Of Kings Needs Some Horsepower

Back when the Rose Bowl was THE game and more people cared about the Rose Parade, the week between Christmas and New Year’s became the ideal time for separated families to spend quality time.  During the brief time my grandparents lived in Southern California, that’s when my mom actually dared to venture on a plane on her own (my younger sister along for the ride for “girl bonding”) and got to see what a real tourist trap this city was capable of being like.  Especially when my grandfather’s one request, since he was no longer able to drive himself, was to see opening day at Santa Anita Race Track.

In New York, where horse racing was still a really big deal for newspapers, even spawning a daily tabloid heavily devoted to news and selections called SPORTS EYE that was a less obvious companion piece for compulsive gamblers than the far more obvious DAILY RACING FORM, opening day at Santa Anita was covered extensively, often by handicappers looking for sunshine and a junket.  Here, the local newspapers offered special preview msections, including calendars for the upcoming year as glossy Sunday supplements, and crowds flocked to see what were often the country’s best thoroughbreds, often ones that would eventually wind up competing for the Triple Crown later in the coming year.  Numerous addicted celebrity touts could be seen in the stands.  One of my grandfather’s proudest moments was when he stood behind Cary Grant at the $2 betting window and was able to tell him his standard pub joke–“I bet a horse at ten to one.  He finished at quarter to five”.  Mr. Grant’s silence was deafening.

Well, of course, these days, there’s barely any newspapers, and you have to look a lot harder to find any coverage of these races.  There are obscure channels like TVG, once an adjunct to the TV Guide Channel, that carries live racing from several tracks (including Santa Anita).  But the intense coverage of local radio and TV, which treated live race calls as breaking news and would devote half-hour daily wrap-ups on regional sports channels and even some over-the-air stations, are long gone.   And here in LA, the once-racing heavy TIMES has done away with daily predictions and results, along with their purge of box scores and standings save for their weekly recap of the NFL teams.

But they did apparently cover opening day, and apparently on this day the crowd size was decent enough to be newsworthy.   As John Cherwa penned in the paper’s Wednesday edition:

A slightly overcast sky for the first race eventually gave way to sunshine, warming the mostly jacketed crowd announced at 37,143. Last year the attendance was announced as 41,446 but it was held on a more desirable Monday. 

Lines were long at some betting windows, but more so at the booths selling hand-carved sandwiches, a Santa Anita culinary staple. Patrons could pass the time between races thumbing through the wall calendars that are an annual giveaway item on opening day.

There were plenty of pari-mutuel tickets cashed. Four favorites won during the 11-race card and the highest payout on a $2 win ticket was $14.20 until the last race when a 10-1 longshot won a maiden race paying $23.00.

And as THE PAULICK REPORT’s Mike Willman added (if you recognize the name, he’s been a longtime contributor to local and national coverage from Santa Anita), that led to a fairly profitable day for those that sold those tickets as well:

(A)n on-track crowd of 37,143 contributed to a robust all-sources handle of $18.3 million, which rates as the best handle ever among a total of 17 opening dates conducted on a Tuesday.

“From a business standpoint, opening on a Tuesday is always a challenge because so many people are back to work,” said Santa Anita senior vice president and general manager Nate Newby.  “We want to sincerely thank our fans for their tremendous support and our horsemen, trainers, jockeys and owners, for putting on a magnificent show.

But that’s apparently more apparent an event than ever.  Because the last time Cherwa had penned an article worthy of inclusion in what’s left of the TIMES’ sports section the tone of the news from elsewhere in the state was all but funereal:

Despite announcing that Golden Gate Fields was closing at the end of the year, the Stronach Group has agreed to keep the horse racing track open another six months, into the middle of 2024. 

Jockey Pedro Terrero rides River Rose to victory at Golden Gate Fields during a race in September 2018.

Aidan Butler, chief executive of 1/st Racing, said the track will apply for racing dates for the first half of next year. Barring something unforeseen, the track likely will receive the dates and then close next summer after eight decades of racing.

TSG announced the scheduled closing of Golden Gate in mid-July in an effort to shore up racing at Santa Anita. The historic and picturesque Arcadia track has struggled to summon the large fields found favorable to bettors. The once-vibrant track can appear like a ghost town during weekday racing as most of the track’s handle comes from ADWsources, which can be done remotely on phones or tablets.

And Cherwa was hardly optimistic that many days apart from opening day were looking robust even for Santa Anita:

The track runs an average of only three days a week. The hope is that horses that had been running at Golden Gate, which straddles Albany and Berkeley in the Bay Area, would come south and allow Santa Anita to go to four days of racing.

The move was met with skepticism.

Greg Ferraro, chairman of the CHRB, told The Times in late July: “No more than 20% of the horses would qualify to race in the south. I don’t think there is much support for $5,000 claimers down there.”

But when the northern California track which often complimented spring meets and received substantial coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle does shutter for good it will meet the same fate as did Hollywood Park, which was destroyed in 2015 to make room for what is now the home of those NFL teams that actually warrant box scores in the TIMES, SoFi Stadium.  A distant memory, kind of like Cary Grant.

And if you things are any better (bettor?) back East, think again.  New York City’s signature racing event isn’t even going to be held at its venerable home, as AMNY’s Robert Pozarycki recently shared:

Next year’s Belmont Stakes will not be run at Belmont Park on the Queens/Nassau border, Governor Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday.

The third leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown will instead be run upstate at Saratoga Race Course as part of a special spring racing festival while the $450 million reconstruction of Belmont Park continues. Saratoga traditionally hosts racing from mid-July through Labor Day on the New York Racing Association (NYRA) circuit, but the Belmont rebuild — which includes a new, smaller grandstand and renovated racing surfaces — has necessitated major changes to the racing schedule.

Traditionally, the Belmont Stakes brings crowds of between 50,000 and 90,000 to Belmont Park, the number often titling higher whenever a Triple Crown sweep is possible — as it was in 2015 and 2018, when American Pharoah and Justify, respectively, became the 12th and 13th Triple Crown winners. But the ongoing project made it impossible to host racing at Belmont next year.

Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, which was downsized years ago with the development of the Resorts World New York City casino, will host in 2024 other race dates normally run at Belmont, but lacks the seating capacity to accommodate an event such as the Belmont Stakes.

Fewer horses.  Fewer seats.  Fewer fans.  And little reason to believe that’s gonna turn around anytime soon.

But since I still think of my grandfather often, I thought this was newsworthy enough an event to break up some of the monotony of other sports (We’ll save our Pistons update for after their next game, since it’s honestly an even sadder tale than this one).

Just don’t count on an update on closing day at Santa Anita, or Aqueduct, or even Golden Gate Fields.  That’s a longshot even Cary Grant wouldn’t have bet.



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