Thirty years ago, on the traditional opening day Santa Anita winter meet, they had over 50,000 fans on track. Music Merci rolled home to win the featured Malibu Stakes. Two longshots finished second and third at odds of 21-1 and 35-1. There were nine races on the card and a total of 96 horses (10.7 runners per race). Four races were won by longshots at 10-1, 11-1, 13-1 and 25-1.
50,000 fans. Nearly 11 runners per race. Big prices. If you love California racing you might be humming the Merle Haggard line "Wishin' all these old things were new".
The 2019 Santa Anita winter meet will also begin the day after Christmas, just as it did in 1989. That's where the similarities are likely to end.
Most of the country is aware of the horse breakdowns at Santa Anita over the last year. Everyone from PETA to politicians have been calling for the end of horse racing in California. Their claim is horses are mistreated and abused. This is woefully incorrect, quite the opposite, but the perception damage has been done. While the horse population is at an all-time low, the exodus of top outfits to Arkansas and Kentucky are going to decimate the Santa Anita product.
Los Alamitos carded the Grade 1 Starlet and Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity on December 7th. To say the fields were small is an understatement. There were five runners in the Starlet and four in the Futurity. What makes it even more bleak is that trainer Bob Baffert had 4 of the 9 horses (44%). He is one of the trainers sending horses to Oaklawn Park.
What is Santa Anita's loss is Oaklawn Park's gain. The Arkansas-based track is sitting on what looks to be one of the best meets they've ever carded. Oaklawn Park has always run a fantastic, fan-friendly product. Their races go off at post time. They do not allow syndicate, robotic wagering in their pools. They don't have trees obscuring racing view for the entire backstretch. They care about thoroughbred racing and it shows. Given the amount of top level connections who are partaking for the first time (Doug O'Neill, Shug McGaughey, Jerry Holldendorfer are a few) it looks like it will be a throwback meet with large fields, compelling racing and big prices.
So what will become of California racing? Will there be enough horses to even fill cards during this meet? It's hard to say where this will go. With the closure of Hollywood Park there is precedent for throwing in the towel. The real estate that Santa Anita, Del Mar and Los Alamitos sits on is extraordinarily valuable. It isn't a stretch to see the property sold to those who will not continue to run horse racing. If Santa Anita goes, you'd have to think it would create a domino effect.
While many feel that contraction is long overdue in the sport, losing a vital region of the country would be detrimental. There are many owners with a lot of spending power that live in California. Would they continue to own horses to run in parts of the country they aren't able to regularly attend?
Let's hope that Santa Anita has a safe, incident-free meeting with better than expected racing. With the new year there is hope that 2019 was an aberration and 2020 will do more than allow us clarity of hindsight. Let's hope that fundamental change inspires a healthier future in California and across the country. Sometimes it has to hit rock bottom to create the willingness to change. I think we're there.