As Santa Anita gets set to open its 82nd season on Wednesday, it seems to be conflicted about trying to sell its past or its future.
A new advertising campaign, Timeless Tradition, preys on the memories of when horse racing was the thing to do, especially on its traditional day-after-Christmas opening day. Yet, at the same time, there is one thing for sure: This meeting is really about what’s new.
There’s a new race caller.
There’s a new racing secretary.
There’s a new bet that is trying to bring the feel of casino gambling.
What’s old is new again with the prospective return of two jockeys recovering from serious back injuries.
There’s even a Hall of Fame jockey trying to reinvent himself as an agent.
The job of selling all the changes and experiences of Santa Anita falls to Frank Mirahmadi, who is expanding the job of race caller to include being a track ambassador and cheerleader. He was named to this expanded position after Michael Wrona, the race caller since 2016, did not have his contract renewed.
“It’s all about Santa Anita Park,” Mirahmadi said. “It’s giving the Great Race Place as much positive energy as I can give it. … If I were to give myself a job description, it would be to show my love for Santa Anita at all times. It will not require any special effort.”
Mirahmadi is no stranger to Santa Anita, having grown up in Beverly Hills and gone to the track as a teenager. He would sit in the grandstand, where he would try to perfect his future occupation, doing practice calls of races, often in the voices of people who came before him.
“Every announcer at Santa Anita is a race calling legend,” Mirahmadi said. “Joe Hernandez, Dave Johnson, Trevor Denman, Michael Wrona. I need to and will improve my work at Santa Anita in order to maintain the level of brilliance that has been displayed in that booth.”
Mirahmadi’s path to this moment has been long. He’s been the caller at his share of small and large tracks across the country. He’s called the California fair circuit, Golden Gate and Los Alamitos. He left a job at Aqueduct in New York to come back to Santa Anita. He will continue to call the summer meeting at Monmouth when Santa Anita is dark.
“I’ve never worked this much,” Mirahmadi said of his almost year-round schedule.
Mirahmadi’s love for Santa Anita was such that he gave up a full-time job at Oaklawn Park just to audition for the Santa Anita job in 2016. He didn’t get the job, losing, by his count, for the sixth time to Wrona. The consolation prize was Golden Gate Fields, a position he kept until he went to New York last year.
Now, he has the job he always wanted.
“It’s all very real now,” Mirahmadi said. “I’ve had a lot of time to reflect. A lot of tears. A lot of emotion. A lot of gratitude thinking back to the days when I was a kid going out to Santa Anita and the years traveling the country for a lot of different jobs.”
Mirahmadi will have no shortage of story lines to sell this season. On Wednesday’s opening day, he’ll call the Malibu Stakes, headlined by McKinzie, a horse that was named for the late Brad McKinzie, who hired Mirahmadi to call races at Los Alamitos.
“When I see McKinzie in the starting gate, I will have some emotion because Brad was a very special man,” Mirahmadi said. “People can touch your life and he was one of them. The amount of time I spent with him was very little, but the impact was enormous.”
He’ll get to call Victor Espinoza’s expected return to racing after the Hall of Fame jockey broke his back in a training accident in July. Espinoza should resume riding in mid-January.
“He has been told there won’t be any restrictions,” said Brian Beach, Espinoza’s agent. “He won’t come back unless he’s 100%. We’re not looking for a certain [easy to ride] kind of horse. We’ll have the same plan as before.”
It’s also hoped that jockey Corey Nakatani will resume riding during this meeting. He had back surgery after sustaining an injury in August and has started physical therapy. His return is less clear.
Mirahmadi, who has called many of retired hall of fame jockey Gary Stevens’ races, likely will call Stevens’ first win as an agent for Aaron Gryder sometime this meeting.
Joel Rosario is a name Mirahmadi will undoubtedly call many times as the former Southern California rider has returned after almost 4,500 races in New York since moving there in 2012.
“It’s all good and we were just looking for a little change,” said Ron Anderson, Rosario’s agent. “He’s very excited about the prospect of being back. The racing is good here.”
Starting with the second condition book, the races will be put together by Steve Lym, who replaced fired racing secretary Rick Hammerle, who had the job since 2003. Lym comes to Santa Anita from Woodbine Racecourse in Toronto and will start after the beginning of the year.
Lym’s job will be to get full fields so that Mirahmadi will then have to convince bettors that the track’s new “roulette” bet is a fun option to conventional wagers. In this bet, horses in individual races of six horses or more, will be divided into groups that will be coded as red, black or green for a separate win pool. The goal is to make it more accessible for novice bettors.
“Once you get people to Santa Anita, that’s all you need to do. It’s the best place in the world,” Mirahmadi said. “If you look at any Twitter feed, every day you’ll always see the background of Santa Anita. Someone is going to tweet a picture of Clocker’s Corner in the morning or the mountains in the background. Once you get them out here, you’ll get them back.”