Santa Anita opens its short 22-day fall meeting on Friday filled with new bets, new promotions and even a new name for its signature 2-year-old Kentucky Derby prep race.
In many ways, this is nothing unusual. This meeting often serves as a petri dish for things that may work during its marathon Winter-Spring meeting that starts every year on Dec. 26.
“I think [it’s a good time to experiment] because it is six weeks,” said Nate Newby, vice president of marketing at Santa Anita. “If you try something new you aren’t tied to it. [During the longer meet] if it doesn’t work then it’s hard to stop and then start something new. With six weeks, it’s long enough to give it a good test, but not so long as to put yourself in a bad spot if it doesn’t work.”
Fans more interested in the racing than the race-day experience get 25 stakes races, including six Grade 1s, four Grade 2s and four Grade 3s. Saturday is the centerpiece of that with four of the Grade 1s. Accelerate, the top older horse in the country, will be tested by Eclipse Award-winning West Coast in the Awesome Again, considered the final prep for horses stabled in California for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
There is also the American Pharoah Stakes, this year renamed from the FrontRunner Stakes, for 2-year-olds with eyes on the Kentucky Derby. The last four winners have all run on the first Saturday in May, with two of them—American Pharoah and Nyquist—winning the world’s most prestigious race.
“It’s a great race and we wanted to give him a great legacy race at Santa Anita and we weren’t that in love with the FrontRunner name,” Newby said. “To replace it with a great horse instead of the name of our restaurant seems like a no-brainer.”
In an attempt to win over the bettors, Tim Ritvo, who runs all of the Stronach tracks, is trying to duplicate success he had at Gulfstream by introducing the Rainbow Pick Six, a 20-cent bet whose primary goal is to draw a giant carryover on a mandatory payout day. It replaces the conventional Pick Six, which was a $2 bet.
On a daily basis, 70% of the pool after takeout goes back to the people who have the most winners. The remaining 30% is placed in a separate pool going to a single winner. Of course, with more combinations bet at 20 cents, the likelihood of a single winner is less and the chance of a big payout at the end is greater. It’s why more people play a lottery ticket that may have a $100-million payout than a $10-million payout.
Earlier this year at Gulfstream, like Santa Anita owned by the Stronach Group, there was about $16 million in new money bet on the mandatory payout day to add to a carryover of $4 million. It was a track record.
There is also a Stronach Pick 5, meant to be a Friday-only rapid-fire five races between Santa Anita, Golden Gate, Gulfstream and Laurel, all tracks owned by the Stronach Group. The gimmick here is a 12% takeout, well below the 20-plus takeout for win, place, show and most exotic bets.
The sequence is supposed to be run in a 45-minute time period.
New bets can be a risky proposition. You have to guard against new bets cannibalizing other bets. The late Pick 5 was a recent addition that worked with the bettors. The fear was it would hurt the $2 Pick Six. In this meeting there is no Pick Six.
As for promotions, Santa Anita is appealing to the basest human instinct: the desire for cheap beer. On Fridays, there will be free parking, free admission and $2 beers. The track is also experimenting with a large-format program that has past performances in it. It will go for $3, 50 cents more than the standard pocket program.
“What we’re trying to do is simple: give fans multiple reasons to be here,” Newby said.
The track is under intense pressure to improve revenue as it is often compared to Gulfstream, which is a compact race track, casino and upscale retail center. Santa Anita, by comparison, is a large parcel of land which is almost exclusively dependent on revenue from racing.
Friday’s nine-race card is highlighted by the Grade 3 $100,000 Eddie D. Stakes, named for Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye.
The track will usually run Thursday through Sunday. There is a special Monday card on Oct. 8.
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