Thursday, June 20, 2024

Santa Anita ‘might look at’ adding synthetic surface, GM says

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ARCADIA — The debate is on after 12 horses died at Churchill Downs in a six-week span this spring. Bring back synthetic tracks or stick with the traditional dirt surfaces?

According to Santa Anita senior vice president and general manager Nate Newby, Santa Anita officials are always looking at options to improve the product but there are no plans to convert to an artificial surface anytime soon.

“Our dirt track has been very safe, but it’s something we’ll always look at,” Newby said as Santa Anita concluded its 28-day Hollywood Meet and its nearly six-month combined season on Sunday. “Obviously, one of our focuses the last couple of years has been on turf racing. Those fields are bigger and they’re popular at the (betting) windows, driving more handle.

“We’re looking at a couple of ideas to really focus on turf racing, and I think having a synthetic track, even as a training track, is something we might look at to just give the guys some extra options for training and help recruit some more turf horses from around the country and internationally as well.”

Santa Anita faced some challenges this year, most notably caused by Mother Nature. Newby said from December to this past storm, the track was hit by close to 40 inches of rain, causing eight cancellations, some of which were not made up.

“At least the last 15 years that’s the most rain (we’ve had),” Newby said. “When you lose a weekend (day) and replace it with a weekday or a Monday, it’s not apples to apples. You just get back as much as you can. It’s almost like (only) a half day back.”

The wet weather means the track will be flat compared to last year in average daily handle and a bit down in overall handle, Newby said.

“We had to make some adjustments,” he said. “It’s a different set of rules we play by now. Safety is our top priority so sometimes shifting days and canceling cards (is necessary). There’s a cost to that. But Santa Anita Derby day was really strong, so we’ve had some highlights as well. It was kind of a mix of ups and downs this season.”

The pluses included a record opening day, highlighted by the biggest on-track crowd (41,446) in seven years and a record betting handle. Santa Anita Derby day was also a big success.

Field size was included among the minuses. Through last weekend, Santa Anita averaged 7.2 horses per race, up slightly over last year’s 7.1.

“That’s definitely one of the things we’re focused on, trying to improve, and how to recruit more horses and barns to come to California,” Newby said. “We’re working with the Del Mar team to jointly recruit to California together. With it being a Breeders’ Cup year (at Santa Anita), we think that’s a really good opportunity. Obviously, the focus later in the year will be on Santa Anita, and that helps in recruitment as well.”

On-track attendance was capped when Del Mar hosted its two Breeders’ Cups. Santa Anita has never capped attendance when it has hosted the event — a record 10 times — but Newby said no decision has been made yet about this year’s event on Nov. 3-4.

“The Breeders’ Cup folks are coming out next month for more meetings and we’re going to look at how ticket sales are tracking,” Newby said. “A lot of it just depends on what we end up doing in the infield. Tickets are selling really well, especially the premium stuff.”

PLANETARIO WINS

Planetario gave Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella his second victory in the $100,000 Grade III turf marathon, 30 years after 1993 Horse of the Year Kotashaan won the 1-3/4-mile race.

The 5-year-old Brazilian-bred won by 4 1/2 lengths under Hector Berrios, running the distance in 2:48.08 as the 5-2 second choice. Even-money favorite Offlee Naughty finished second, a nose in front of 21-1 longshot Rimprotector, but was no match for the winner.

Once one of the premier turf races in the nation, the San Juan has been downgraded from a Grade I to a Grade III stakes over the years. It once attracted some of the top turf horses in the country, but those days are gone.

“This is what racing should be about,” Mandella said. “Thoroughbred racing should be something like this, and to not push this race and not build it up bigger is a mistake in my mind.”

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