Santa Anita postpones opening day to Saturday

The starting gate is moved after a race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.
The starting gate is moved after a race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Santa Anita, for the first time since 1976, is moving its opening day from the day after Christmas and instead will open Saturday, Dec. 28. The late change was made in anticipation of wet weather that could possibly compromise the track’s surface.

The move is a signal as to how serious Santa Anita will take the condition of the racing surface after 30 horses died during the last winter/spring meeting. Last year’s opening day drew 41,373 with an opening-day record mutuel handle of more than $20 million.

Starting Sunday, there is significant rain predicted through Monday, less Tuesday and then increasing Wednesday and Thursday. If there were to be racing Thursday, the races would likely be taken off the turf, making for a weaker card.

“Opening day is traditionally one of our biggest days of the year, but our commitment to safety is first and foremost,” said Aidan Butler, acting executive director of California racing for the Stronach Group. “It was very important to make this call as early as possible for our horsemen, fans and employees. There are many moving parts, especially in the training of these wonderful horses, and this decision is being made at this time out of respect to give all involved plenty of advance notice.”

Two horses died in the first race Saturday at Los Alamitos, adding to a string of fatalities this year at California tracks.

It’s not like this is a total loss for Santa Anita, it will still be a significant day for simulcasting revenue and they won’t be paying out big purses.

Santa Anita is required by the California Horse Racing Board to cancel 12 races during its seven-month season. Ostensibly, those days would come on bad weather days. Butler wasn’t sure if these days would be used as flex days or made up later. It’s a new process and the procedures are unclear.

“It is very difficult to predict weather forecasts in Southern California more than 48 hours in advance,” said Dennis Moore, who has returned as track superintendent. “Right now, they have rain Monday through Thursday morning. But the models are continuing to change and when they do that, they are usually building up moisture.”

Santa Anita was exonerated Thursday by the L.A. County District Attorney’s office of any criminal wrongdoing in the deaths of 30 horses during that meeting. Among the many things the 12-person task force found was not a factor in the deaths was a sealed track, a surface that is pushed down to keep the water out of the soil on rainy days. If they were to race Thursday, there was the possibility of a sealed track.


Yet, the CHRB offered in a letter this month to eliminate sealed tracks for racing as a safety proposal to Gov. Gavin Newsom. Santa Anita’s decision to postpone racing also seems to be in contrast to the task force’s findings on racing surfaces.

Thursday’s race card, including two Grade 1s, will be moved to Saturday. Highlighting the races will be Omaha Beach, the favorite for the Kentucky Derby before scratching, running in the Malibu Stakes.

“They are doing the right thing by moving the races,” said Richard Mandella, Omaha Beach’s trainer. “I’m just very happy to be in the race with this horse.”

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