Santa Anita Would Abandon Dec. 26 Opening in 2005

What is it that racing fans might not be opening the day after Christmas in 2005? Santa Anita -- if a proposal from the track's president is eventually accepted by the California Horse Racing Board.

At the CHRB's racing dates committee meeting at Del Mar's satellite wagering facility July 23, Jack McDaniel requested that the board break with a 27-year-old tradition -- and the marketing hook that kicks off the Southern California winter racing season -- by abandoning its Dec. 26 start. McDaniel argued that under the dates alignment created in 2001 by the addition of a three- to-five-day Christmas break, Santa Anita is being "asked to squeeze the same schedule into one less week."

Santa Anita first opened on the day after Christmas in 1949, but it became the track's annual curtain raiser in 1977, where it has thrived as one of the best attended racing events in Southern California each year. The full CHRB will weigh the merits of the Santa Anita plan at its August 19 meeting at Del Mar.

In order to accommodate the Christmas hiatus, Santa Anita "naively" agreed to give up a week of racing in late April, which now belongs to the Hollywood Park spring/summer meeting, McDaniel said.

"The monetary impact of that decision was nothing short of disastrous for both Santa Anita and horsemen," he said, noting losses of $1.4 million in purses, $2.1 million in commissions and 250,000 payroll hours, mainly attributable to the loss of the week's racing. In the meantime, Hollywood Park gained a week of spring racing while forfeiting a few days of action Christmas week.

"Given the one-sided impact of our concession in 2001, we believed that it was fair to ask the industry to evaluate equitable alternatives to help us mitigate a heavy cost that was intended to have overall industry benefit," he said.

Santa Anita, in effect, lost one of its statutory limit of 17 weeks while reducing its meet from 87 days to as few as 83, depending on what day of the week the meeting starts on. By pushing back Santa Anita's start to Dec. 28 in 2005 (from Monday to Wednesday), McDaniel sees a way to regain the lost days while offering the industry holiday time after Christmas.

"I think there is the possibility that we could go into permanent 16-week mode otherwise," he said.

"If you compress our schedule to 16 weeks and we have a bad winter, and we are due for a bad winter, that's a recipe for disaster."

Rick Baedeker, Hollywood Park's president, acknowledged that the Inglewood track, as well as the racing industry has benefited by not racing in the days leading up to Christmas, refreshing both the fan base and horse flesh.

"I think the break was very positive," Baedeker said. "Does the board want to maintain a Christmas break or not? We'll live with the decision either way."

But he added, "I can tell you that in running those days before Christmas, we were the least popular people in town. Nobody was happy about it."

Baedeker said he supports the current plan and objected that the Santa Anita proposal would "lop off two days" of the spring schedule, replacing them with Wednesday racing during the Memorial Day and Independence Day weeks, making both six-day weeks.

"We can't race those two Wednesdays in the summer. We just can't fill those cards," Baedeker said.

McDaniel's plan would expand the racing schedule in California by five days to 274, while pushing back the closing of Del Mar and the Los Angeles County Fair meetings by one week.

Craig Fravel, vice president for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said Del Mar's usual closing on the Wednesday after Labor Day, which marks the end of summer, "is better for us. We clearly prefer the proposed calendar."

But he said he was open to further discussion on the issue.

Drew Couto, representing the Thoroughbred Owners of California, noted, "You can't quantify everything in this industry in terms of lost dollars. We fought for the (Christmas) break in 1994 believing it was in the best interest of racing. We got it in seven years. And we stand to fight to keep the break.

"We think the break is vital and we want it to continue."

He said the TOC would listen to Santa Anita's proposal as long as the holiday break is preserved.

In Northern California, a potential conflict over dates between Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows was averted with a compromise split schedule in 2005. Under the plan, which needs to the CHRB's approval next month, Bay Meadows would open Feb. 2 and run through May 8. Golden Gate, which races the entire month of January, would resume on May 11 and run through June 19.

Bay Meadows would run from Sept. 2 to Oct. 16, with Golden Gate returning from Oct. 19 to Dec. 19.

Officials from Golden Gate Fields, which is owned by Magna Entertainment, and Bay Meadows, which is switching from Magna to the Bay Meadows Racing Assoc. at the end of this year, had clashed at a dates meeting this spring.