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BILL DWYRE

As Santa Anita meet opens, a look back at the racetrack's history

Horse racing had less competition for fans' attention when the park had its first opener in 1934. And opening Dec. 26 wasn't always a tradition. Wednesday's post time is noon.

Bill Dwyre

6:44 PM PST, December 25, 2012

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Santa Anita once ran a promotional campaign that should never have been abandoned. It teased and tickled and remains a message of pride for Southern California horse racing fans.

"What do you open the day after Christmas?"

The sport that spends much of its time wringing its hands at why so many think it is not hip and cool like the Lakers will have its annual new beginning Wednesday. Post time is noon at Santa Anita Park, and the Great Race Place will certainly feel worthy of its name on this day.

It's still a big deal, a chance for horsemen to set goals and dream of Kentucky Derbies; a chance for trainer Doug O'Neill to focus his memories of 2012 on another I'll Have Another and not on "Drug" O'Neill; for Bob Baffert to roll out some new one-liners about being a bridesmaid in all of the 2012 Triple Crown races and figure out a way to catch the bouquet in 2013. This premier annual race meeting always warrants a tip of the Big 'Cap.

But oh, my. What a really big deal it once was, starting with the first opener in 1934.

For the first four years, Santa Anita opened its winter meeting on Christmas Day. Some thought that was too frivolous an event for such a sacred day. Charles "Doc" Strub, who started the track and so much of everything else that still goes on at Santa Anita, agreed that Christmas was a religious day but disagreed that it should be a sad one. He saw Christmas and horse racing as somehow jointly joyous.

The exact date of the Christmastime opener moved around for a few years. The first Dec. 26 opener was not until 1949. Since 1952, the day after Christmas has been Santa Anita's opening day in all but five seasons, and all seasons since 1977. Now to open any other day would seem sacrilegious.

Strub had an easier sell back then.

There were no pro sports to speak of in the West. The NFL hadn't yet ignored its first concussion. The NBA was still years away from the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and the Sheboygan Red Skins. Major League Baseball had Babe Ruth, but an entire home schedule without fear of rainout wasn't even on its radar.

Strub forged a partnership with Gwynn Wilson, athletic director at USC and 1932 Olympic general manager. Wilson could deliver celebrity athletes. Another partner was filmmaker Hal Roach, that Little Rascal, who could bring the movie stars. They all came to the Director's Room at Santa Anita. Now they sit courtside to watch Kobe.

Pasadena was Los Angeles high society. The Westside social scene had yet to blossom. The first freeway built was not the 405 near the coast, but the Arroyo Seco Parkway, connecting downtown to the mansions nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains and the vibrant city adjacent to the Rose Bowl.

Strub's Christmastime opening was also another reason for many to depart the snow piles and head west for the Rose Bowl and Rose Parade. They arrived a few days early and watched, in shirt sleeves, as the best thoroughbreds in the world raced against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains.

For those who have been around awhile, racing at Santa Anita remains in the blood and opening day is the first transfusion.

Former jockey Larry Gilligan will be on the first turn at Santa Anita on Wednesday, working as a "quick official." As jockeys cross the finish line and want to file a protest, the first person they notify is Gilligan. He alerts the stewards, and the inquiry sign goes up.

"Opening day at Santa Anita is like a grand New Year," Gilligan says. "It's almost like a Kentucky Derby [he rode in three]. People should come. Enjoy. Nobody is making you gamble."

Gilligan is 75. "I think I'll quit when I'm 90," he says.

Jane Goldstein will probably be there Wednesday too. She ran the public relations arm of Santa Anita starting in 1976 and retired in 1998. On her watch in 1982, a record crowd of 69,293 showed up on opening day.

"I saw the glory years," she says.

"In the minds of racing people, this is still the start of something big."

Alex Solis, an eventual Hall of Fame jockey, rode thousands of winners at Santa Anita, including several on opening day. A few years ago, he moved his racing headquarters east so he could ride in New York, Kentucky and Canada. He will not be at Santa Anita on Wednesday because he is recovering in San Diego from shoulder surgery he had there on an injury that had plagued him all year.

"I'm gonna be sad I'm not there," he says. "It's a great place to race, a great place to start the year. I never go to the races, or even watch on TV, if I'm not riding. But I might turn on the TV Wednesday."

Racing ate its young years ago, when it opened the gambling action to people off-site. On most weekdays now at Southern California tracks, the crowds resemble the lobby of a bus station. There are attempts to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Santa Anita may offer bonuses for exotic bets for winners buying the ticket on track.

There are also attempts to promote and communicate horse racing's message through social media. Sadly, the current demographic of race fans tends to creak more than tweet. Racing is trying to change that.

The strength of Dec. 26 at Santa Anita — with the anticipation of what's ahead in the next four months — is that it reminds us that although racing may not be the biggest show in town anymore, it's still worth a few standing ovations.

Another Dec. 26 has arrived. It's opening day at Santa Anita.

On your feet, everybody.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com