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Mercifully, the marathon Santa Anita meet is over. Not that I have anything against Santa Anita. It’s one of the great sports venues in the world, run by good people, with quality racing. But racing nearly four months in the same place is just too much for me. It’s human nature to get stagnant, going to the same place, seeing the same people, carrying out the same routine every day. We’ve written time and time again about too much racing on a year-round calendar, but there almost needs to be a one-week intermission during this meeting. Now one could say we got that and more with the 11 cancellation days, but not really. Entries continued to be drawn almost every day during that time, with constant uncertaintly and many (if not most) cancellations announced the morning of the cancelled card. It’s not like horsemen, fans or handicappers ever got a chance to take a scheduled break and refresh. In fact, by adding three extra Wednesday cards, it actually added to everyone’s workload, essentially turning an already ponderous 85-day meet into 88 days.

The early part of the meet could not gain momentum but things picked up in the last month. Santa Anita Derby Day drew over 50,000 on-track fans. The last couple of weekends saw lively on-track attendance and good racing, although for the meet attendance was down 5% on-track and much worse at simulcast sites. On-track handle decreased 7% on track and 13% at simulcast sites, but showed an overall increase of 2% due to strong increases in Account Deposit Wagering, which was opened up to more ADW providers this season.

Highlights of the meet included the emergence of Rafael Bejarano as the leading rider, overtaking absent Garrett Gomez on the final day of the meet; Tyler Baze reestablishing his career with a strong third-place finish in the standings; Mike Mitchell winning the SA training title while taking down his second straight San Juan Capistrano with BIG BOOSTER (only 12 more to catch Charlie Whittingham); Carla Gaines enjoying a tremendous meet, racking up six stakes races and an incredible 11-for-15 win streak late in the meet; COLONEL JOHN storming home to win the SA Derby in the most exciting big race of the meet; and EVER A FRIEND turning in the most powerful performance of the season when destroying the Kilroe Mile field; two Corvettes given away to single-ticket Pick Six winners purchased on track; the first-ever $1 million ringer in the St. Pat’s horseshoe pitch; and the amazing sire Unusual Heat, whose progeny won an incredible 27 races during the meet.

Lowlights obviously included the 11 cancelled race dates; three makeup Wednesdays; and Monday racing, which is a total dud—zero atmosphere and totally anti-climactic after two good weekend days. Here’s my vote for going back to the regular Wednesday through Sunday schedule for next year. I was ambivalent in the beginning, feeling good about the fact that this year’s schedule would eliminate six-day race weeks (well, so much for that) but I’ll live with six day weeks in order to go back to the old calendar. And one final, pathetic lowlight. Patrick Valenzuela, who rode here on opening day, lost his provisional license on Dec. 28 after a DUI arrest. Worse, P.Val failed to appear in a pre-trial hearing, leading to an arrest warrant being issued on Mar. 26. He did finally appear in court on Thursday, three weeks after the warrant was issued. What a waste.

As for the status of Santa Anita’s main track going forward, there are three options, with a decision to be made in the next two weeks: keep the current Cushion Track/Pro-Ride concoction that worked well for the last 2 1/2 months; tear out the current surface and replace it with another synthetic; or go back to a traditional dirt track. In a meeting with 10 local trainers, track owner Frank Stronach told Larry Stewart of the L. A. Times that most of the trainers favored synthetic. “I personally prefer dirt, but the majority of horsemen I met with like synthetic. So I figure if we are this far into it, we should give a synthetic track another year or two, then make a change if we need to,” said Stronach.

But the current synthetic version, while seeming to be very safe on horses’ legs, is not without health concerns. We’ve written about the strong odor emitted by the track since chemicals were added during renovation in early February. The gate crew has gone to wearing surgical masks, also worn by jockey Corey Nakatani in post parade a couple of weeks back. Horn blower Jay Cohen, in perhaps not the best career move ever, told Art Wilson of the LANG newspapers, “I hate the stuff. It smells like kerosene. It stinks. I hate smelling it, but that’s just my opinion. If it’s safer for the horses, that’s the main thing.”

In one of the great behind-the-scenes meetings I’ve ever witnessed (watching from the press box), Stronach and track president Ron Charles went trackside following Saturday’s races to walk on and inspect the track. They were soon joined by trainer Bruce Headley, who is passionately pro-dirt, then later by Tapeta proprietor (and former trainer) Michael Dickinson. Dickinson, whose synthetic surface is currently used at Golden Gate (another Magna track), had made a lap around the track and returned to put on an over-the-top show of kicking the material off his shoes, then spending what seemed like an eternity scraping the stuff off his soles. Animated and with arms waving, Dickinson held his hands two feet apart, then narrowed the margin down to about six inches, apparently indicating to his audience that he believed the track was uneven in some areas. As one press box onlooker noted, “Headley looked at him like he [Dickinson] was a Martian.” It all made for great theater, with Dickinson giving an obvious sales pitch for the track to switch to his Tapeta.

NOTES: Trainer Walther Solis had a great meet with his 2-year-olds, winning five of the 2-furlong dashes…Saturday’s results were so tough that a Pick Six carryover was announced with two races still to be run. No one even had five winners that day…the track offered up a $200,000 guarantee on that day’s Super High 5 but wagering didn’t reach that amount, meaning SA had to make up the difference…in Sunday’s 7th race, Nakatani stood up a few jumps before the wire and blew second when riding MODIFICIATION. He told the stewards that the filly felt “funny” in the final strides, which is why he pulled up early. Modification was checked by the track vet after the race, with no obvious signs of lameness, and will be examined again. If she shows a problem, the filly will be placed on the vet’s list. If she checks out healthy, then Nakatani should be given a hefty fine and/or suspension for his lack of effort…congratulations to Bob Mieszerski for winning this year’s Allan Malamud handicapping contest, sponsored by the track. He blew me away in the final weeks and will receive a $3,000 check, half of which will be donated in his name to the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation…Ray Nelson won the money title (showing an incredible 12% flat-bet profit over the course of 698 races), and half of his award will be donated to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Finally, I know it’s old news now, but GAYEGO was impressive in winning the Arkansas Derby and PYRO laid an egg in the Blue Grass. I still haven’t changed my Derby opinion: 1. Big Brown 2. Colonel John 3. Pyro

To view Free Samples of Premium Plays from the last two weeks, clink on the links below: Apr. 10Â Â Apr. 11Â Â Apr. 12Â Â Apr. 13Â Â Apr. 14Â Â Apr. 17Â Â Apr. 18Â Â Apr. 19Â Â Apr. 20

Comments

One Response to “Santa Anita Wrap Up”

  1. Alfredo on April 26th, 2008 2:21 am

    Have to disagree about the racing week.

    I like Monday’s instead of Wednesday racing. Three races of mediocre racing before the weekend cards is a little too much waiting for me.

    Since I’m off weekends I can ‘cap Monday’s card on Sunday night instead of having to wait for Tuesday to pick Wednesday’s ‘Form.
    Seems like I get plenty of extra Mondays off and that means a few more visits to the track.

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