At a time when many tracks around the country are strugglings to survive, thoroughbred racing in Southern California is healthy. Filthy healthy.
A crowd of 57,498 bet more than $6.6 million on a recent Sunday at Santa Anita Park, where last season's wagering average of $3.5 million is being bettered this year by nearly 10 per cent. And Santa Anita traditionally runs second to Hollywood Park in the area's business race.
The argument can be made that California is taking over as the best racing circuit in the United States. New York's edge, if one continues to exist, is that the few sporting tables that remain continue to show their allegiance to the East. New York racing, on-track, is still the best in the summer and fall, but California is coming on strong.
Purses are exceptionally high. The Hollywood Gold Cup last week was increased to $350,000 in value. King Pellinore and Great Contractor ran at Santa Anita last week in a $30.000 overnight event. The day-by-day cards are excellent.
In terms of spectator appeal, the physical setting, California racing stands alone. The reasons for its increasing popularity are immediately obvious to any visitor recently rescued from the agony of winter sports back East.
First, there is the weather, which is ideal. Secondly, California does not have serious competition from neighboring states. Third, the quality of horse flesh is high and is improving annually. Fourth, California tracks are far ahead of their Eastern brethren in terms of marketing, publicity and public relations. But most important is the track management's attitude toward the public.
"The great race place," Santa Anita bills itself this 40th season. Signs and posters abound proclaiming "The Shoe Wants You," with Bill Shoemaker, wearing, red, white and blue silk, pointing his finger at a prospective recruit a la Uncle Sam.
Once Santa Anita get you, it keeps you. You want to come back.
The grounds are immaculate. The backstretch is pleasant. The help is polite. Not every track can be fortunate enough to have the San Gabriel Mountains for a backdrop, as Santa Anita does, but this is one racing plant where the facillities would be attractive in any setting.
The public out here is invited to get involved with racing. Supervised workouts are open to the fans each morning. Backstretch tours are offered twice a week. The gift shop actually sells books about gambling on horses.
A sincere, consientious attempt is made at all levels of operation to make the public feel it is wanted. It all adds up to a good show in wonderfully pleasant and hospitable surroundings. The resort tracks are the ones doing well in the United States today. California's major tracks have a distinct resort flavor.
Success breeds success, and Santa Anita obviously has not been shy about reinvesting some of its profit into even better racing. Only now, having scraped the cream off the top for decades, do many Eastern managements realize they should have tried a little harder when times were different. Instead, they beg for tax relief from the state legislatures as a remedy for their sins of the past.
Racing enjoys progressive management in California, which makes this state darn near unique. Not that it is perfect. They occasionally go too far, such as listing distances in meters. Somehow, a horse running in 1:11 for 1,200 meters just doesn't ring true.
But at least it shows management is attuned to the present, and to the future.
A report by a firm commissioned by the Jockey Club to study the business of racing has told the nation's track owners that some form of off-track beting, either interstate or intrastate, would be beneficial to the industry.
The industry, predictably, is violently opposed to both ideas, and to anything new. Except in California where racing is prospering, too many track owners still want to return to the way things were, to the Good Old Days. They don't want to gamble on new concepts. Not with their money. The sport will, accordingly, continue to die in many regions of the country.