Santa Anita, horse racing have ‘evolved’ when it comes to rain

When it comes to Mother Nature, horse racing isn’t your father’s or grandfather’s sport anymore. The days of battling heavy rain by holding the Daily Racing Form over your head while you hurry to the turnstiles are history.

Santa Anita was forced to cancel two of its four racing days last weekend, including special holiday racing on Monday, because of weather forecasts that showed lots of rain. Track officials canceled another card on New Year’s Day because of wet weather. It would have been a different story 30 or 40 years ago, but those days are long gone.

“The mentality back then was you continue racing at all costs until the jockeys refuse to ride,” Santa Anita senior vice president and general manager Nate Newby told the Southern California News Group. “It’s a much different ballgame now as the sport has evolved, and I think we’ve made better decisions on that.”

Many fans might believe the early cancellations were a result of pressure from PETA and other animal rights activists, the thinking being if a horse goes down on a sloppy race track and has to be euthanized, the track would be subject to extreme second guessing and negative publicity.

Newby says that’s not the case, that PETA and others had little or nothing to do with the decisions.

“It’s just putting safety as our top priority and knowing we can make some adjustments (moving race dates around),” he said. “Those (canceled) days would have been off the turf, short fields with lots of scratches as opposed to Friday is a good card. We’ll be on the turf. So I think it makes more sense business-wise as well in addition to the safety factor.”

Newby went on to explain how the decisions on whether to race or cancel are reached.

“First and foremost is the safety of the horses and riders. That’s our top priority,” he said. “We have a group, we get together and look at it (weather report), led by our track team (Dennis Moore and Co.). We really rely on him, and there’s also a CHRB inclement weather policy that puts those decisions into four categories, four different people weighing in. For us to race, it has to be unanimous that everybody is very comfortable and feels it’s safe.”

But no one is perfect, including the weathermen. Santa Anita canceled its Monday card three days in advance and the amount of rain that fell on the Arcadia track that day was not as heavy as forecast. Looking back, maybe they could have raced Monday, but again, Newby said they will always err on the side of caution.

“We had almost 15 inches of rain over two weeks and the track had held up remarkably well,” he said. “But the rain hit Sunday right at the end of the card, the track had some moisture in it already, and as they were sealing (the surface) it still took quite a bit of rain. It built up and I think it took a couple of days to dry out. We didn’t have workouts until Wednesday, still trying to dry the track out. We didn’t get as much rain Monday as they predicted, but I think we’re still comfortable with that decision.”

Despite the bad weather, Santa Anita’s Classic Meeting is off to a fast start. Newby reported that, spurred by a great opening day, all-sources handle is up 17% “and the on-track business is up pretty significantly as well.”

Field size is also holding steady through the first nine days of the meet. After averaging just over seven horses per race last year, the average field size so far this meet is 8.1. It’s not Del Mar’s 9.14 horses per race last summer, but anything over eight is very good.

“They (Del Mar) obviously have some prime race dates in the summer and a shorter meet,” Newby said. “We run almost eight months a year so that makes it a different ballgame. But we’re working with the horsemen, we’re looking at what we can do better. At 8.1, I think things are on the right track and we just gotta keep it going.”

Newby said he was optimistic about opening day going in, but the numbers the track put up (41,000-plus on track and a record $26-plus million in handle) were better than he envisioned.

“We knew we had a good card and good weather, but I think it exceeded our expectations for sure,” he said. “I was optimistic, but I’d say pleasantly surprised by the numbers.”

The trick is to continue the upward trend between now and closing day on April 9.

Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73

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