11:38 PM EDT, September 27, 2013
The significance of opening day at Santa Anita on Friday had mostly to do with the Arcadia race track's attempt to enter the brave new world of sports entertainment.
For years, thoroughbred racing has been acquiring the label of "a dying sport." That would be the assessment of the hordes of 20-and-30-somethings, whose passion for sports is a direct line to how their quarterback did in their Sunday fantasy league.
Other sports move faster, make more noise and exude more cool than horse racing. The branders and marketers aim more at age 17 than at racing's demographic, closer to age 67. Racing wasn't apt to think about an app until it was apt to be too late.
Into this AARP arena stepped a man named Keith Brackpool. He took over as Santa Anita's chief executive in January, and he came with useful credentials. A horse owner, he was also head of the California Horse Racing Board for four years, so he knew his way around the tracks. He also put some of his own money into owner Frank Stronach's Great Race Place. With investment comes leverage.
His timing was especially important. Hollywood Park will go out of business after its winter meeting ends Dec. 22. It will either become condos, another NFL bargaining chip for a stadium or a temporary pile of rubble. Nothing certain there.
What is certain is that Santa Anita is the 500-pound gorilla in Southern California racing now. Its current meeting will run through Nov. 3 and close strongly with the prestigious Breeders' Cup Nov. 1-2. Then, after Hollywood Park closes, Santa Anita will take over again for the next six months, starting with its traditional Dec. 26 opener.
Racing in Southern California, with Del Mar popping up a couple of times a year, will be all Santa Anita, all the time.
To which Brackpool — outspoken, enthusiastic, hard-charging — says, "Bring it on."
He said his initial assessment of Santa Anita was that the track looked and felt "tired." So he has applied fresh paint, new concepts and modern vision. It isn't lipstick on a pig, because Santa Anita never got to that, but it is noticeable already, even in a physical plant as large as Santa Anita.
The grandstand area has been cleaned up, opened up and modernized. Huge flat-screen TVs are everywhere, along with new and trendy food stations.
A noodle bar at a race track? Yup.
The Turf Club has been replaced with a modernized clubhouse area. Regular admission is $5. Clubhouse admission is now $8.50.
"Best deal in sports," Brackpool said.
There are two other rooms still under construction, one with a new balcony that lets in more light and another for groups and parties modeled after sports books in Las Vegas. By law, you'll be able to bet only on racing, but the football, basketball and baseball will be on the big screens as well.
Then there is Brackpool's gesture to high-rollers, many of them horse owners. He has added a luxury area just off the first turn. Entrance will be by invitation only, and he has named it the Eddie Logan Suite. The message and the name are perfect.
Logan was the track's longtime shoeshine man. He started the first day the track opened, Dec. 25, 1934, and remained active until he died at 98 in 2009. As the story goes, he once was asked who, in all those years, had been the most important person for whom he shined shoes.
"Mandella," he said.
The questioner, eyes wide, said, "You shined Nelson Mandela's shoes?"
Logan replied, "Not Nelson. Richard."
Richard Mandella is a current Hall of Fame trainer at Santa Anita.
In 2006, they named a stakes race for Logan. A few years later, one of Brackpool's horses won it.
"I saw Eddie right after that," Brackpool said. "I told him my horse won his race. He was mad about something. He said that had cost him $300, that he was on his way to the window to put $100 down on it, but was called to the winners' circle because it was his race.
"So I reached in my pocket and gave him three $100 bills.
"Then, when I'm thinking about what to name our new suite, it hit me. Who better than a 90-something who hustled me out of $300?"
Brackpool said that, after he took over, he walked the grandstand area "maybe 200, 250 times," just looking and thinking about ideas. Some were his, some came from others. Now, $15 million later, they may be just beginning.
Friday's opener was routine. Attendance was 4,537, short of last year's 5,775. No sign there of any traction with the public yet.
Julien Leparoux rode Jeff Mullins' Chips All In to victory in the feature, the $100,000 Grade III Eddie D Stakes, named for former jockey Eddie Delahoussaye.
In the last race of the day, the favorite threw jockey Rafael Bejarano in the parade to the gate and was scratched. Another horse acted up at the gate and was scratched. Then, a 65-1 shot was nipped at the wire and paid $67 to place and $30.80 to show.
Good stuff, but not as important on this day as the receipts at the noodle bar.
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