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33,112 Return to Santa Anita for Opener

Pro-Ride racing surface gets first rain and cold weather test as winter meet begins.

Santa Anita Park dodged the rain, which hit Southern California Christmas day but left skies sunny for the traditional Dec. 26 opening day. A crowd of 33,112 attended, an increase of 9.8% over the 30,156 fans at the 2007 opener.

Santa Anita handled a total of $15,046,336, down about a half percent from the 2007 figure of $15,116,490.

The Pro-Ride synthetic surface, which debuted during the high temperatures of the Oak Tree Racing Association fall meet, this time had to withstand a week of intermittent rain leading up to the Santa Anita opener. The question was whether Pro-Ride would drain properly, unlike the Cushion Track surface of the 2007-08 season.

“We’ve never come into a meet with more optimism or feeling good about a racing surface than we did today,” Santa Anita president Ron Charles said. “The track is draining. The other morning, when we got about 2 1/2 inches of rain, I walked the track and heard it draining. We may run into some soft spots where the old Cushion Track clogs things up, but we will be looking for them and clearing them out as soon as we can.”

Opening day got off to a rocky start when two horses failed to finish the first race, a $32,000 maiden claiming event for a dozen 2-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles. Warren’s Kenzo, a 100-1 shot, broke down on the first turn. Then on the backstretch, favored Nascar Johnny pulled up.

Warren’s Kenzo fractured his right front sesamoid and had to be euthanized. Nascar Johnny was vanned off the track with a soft-tissue problem.

“He just took a bad step,” jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. said of Nascar Johnny. “I wouldn’t want to blame the track. It was just one of those things.”

Trainer Caesar Dominguez later reported that Nascar Johnny “will be OK. He’ll just need some time off.”

Two races later, trainer Carla Gaines unveiled a promising son of Point Given named Point Encounter. Bred and owned by Kentucky West Racing, Point Encounter led throughout most of the 6 1/2-furlong race to win by an easy 1 3/4 lengths over Unionize as the 6-5 favorite. Though Point Encounter has conditions left and Gaines wasn’t immediately sure where he would next run, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in a stakes soon.

Following the fifth race, Marsha Naify and Madeline Auerbach of the California Retirement Management Account presented a check for $150,450 to representatives of seven Thoroughbred retirement organizations receiving CARMA grants. CARMA collects money through fund-raising efforts and a small percentage of purses to help retired Thoroughbreds that raced in California.

The groups benefiting were the California Equine Retirement Foundation, GEVA Inc. Equine Retirement Foundation, Heaven Can Wait, Neigh Saves Foundation, Tranquility Farm, and United Pegasus Foundation, all of California, and the Equine Encore Foundation of Arizona.

The nine-race card included three races on the turf. Because of the rain, followed by an overnight frost that left the turf course and main track white in the early morning hours, the turf races were rescheduled for the main track. Several horses scratched, though Gio Ponti stayed in to win the one-mile Sir Beaufort Stakes (gr. III) because trainer Christophe Clement wanted to try the colt on a synthetic surface.

“It really hurt us in the handle to lose those horses in the grass races,” Charles said.