Fans attending Santa Anita this meeting have found a few new things, be it race caller Frank Mirahmadi, the re-purposing of a few seat locations and some new bets.
But none have affected the psyche of longtime racegoers more than the two-week-old-plus policy of holding post time once the clock strikes zero. In this case, zero really means about four minutes until the horses start to load. There is no more time between races, it’s just how it’s presented.
It’s a policy that sister track Gulfstream has had in place for a few years, nicknamed, not affectionately, the “Gulfstream drag.” The thinking is that bettors like to wager as close to post time as possible. And if zero minutes to post is really 240 seconds to post, more late bettors can make their wagers.
A year-over-year comparison of the first two weeks of the experiment (this is the third week) shows that handle is up about 10.2% — $54.2 million in 2018 and $59.7 million this year. But this doesn’t necessarily point to the success of the new post-time strategy.
During that two-week period, seven more races were run this year. In fact, the average handle on each race was slightly down, from $888,790 to $878,563.
“We don’t have enough of a sample size [to make any judgments],” said P.J. Campo, the vice president for racing at The Stronach Group. “We really didn’t change anything as far as time goes. It’s just something we’re going to try and see how it goes.”
The number of factors that can affect handle are as varied as the different kinds of bets. The main one is weather, be it in Southern California, New York, Florida or Kentucky. If racing is canceled back East it means fewer betting opportunities nationwide, pushing bettors to tracks that are open, such as Santa Anita.
This year, as evidenced by Thursday and Saturday, rain has made Southern California a dreary place to be. And wet weather means the canceling of turf races, favored by bettors because of the larger field sizes.
This is where Santa Anita has been much more pro-active than in the past. Under the direction of Steve Lym, who has been the racing secretary for less than a month, and Dan Eidson, racing director, the racing office has been more attentive of weather.
Saturday’s card originally had a series of turf races, including a graded stakes. Upon seeing the forecast for 1-2 inches of rain, the scheduled card was blown up and replaced with nothing but dirt races. It’s the second time the track has done it this season.
A wait-and-see attitude, which was usual in the past, kept turf races on the grass until race day, resulting in multiple scratches and small betting fields.
“When Mother Nature goes bad, your hands are kind of tied,” Campo said. “We need to look ahead and be pro-active. And not just looking at the day. When you move a race [such as Saturday’s San Marcos, which was moved to next Saturday], you have to look four weeks ahead to see that it doesn’t impact another major race. In this case it didn’t.”
Road to the Derby
Santa Anita’s second of four Kentucky Derby prep races this meeting will be the Grade 3 $150,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles. Three of the six horses are considered possible Derby contenders. Mucho Gusto, from Bob Baffert’s endless stable of good 3-year-olds, is the 8-5 morning-line favorite. He won his first two races but then was beaten by Improbable, another Baffert trainee, in the Los Alamitos Futurity.
Gunmetal Gray, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer at 9-5, is coming off a win in the first Derby prep at Santa Anita, the Sham Stakes. And Nolo Contesto, for Eclipse Award winning owners Kosta and Pete Hronis and trained by John Sadler at 5-2, won his last race, a maiden, by half a length.
The winner gets 10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.
The other feature Saturday is the Grade 2 $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes for older horses going 1 1/8 miles. McKinzie, considered Baffert’s top Derby prospect last year until he was injured and Justify came along, is the 4-5 favorite after easily winning the Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26. McKinzie has won all his races except the San Felipe, where he was disqualified to second, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he finished 12th. He is being pointed to the Santa Anita Handcap.