The grounds of the race track are well-manicured, the physical plant is immaculate. The setting, with majestic mountains in the background, looks like a picture postcard. But when Santa Anita opens for its 49th season of racing on Thursday, a first-time visitor will be most struck by another of the track's natural resources: people. More than 60,000 of them will be there.
In an era when the daily attendance at American race tracks generally is declining, when even a blockbuster event like the Breeders' Cup can't draw a giant crowd in the East, people throng to Santa Anita in amazing numbers.
Last year, the average daily attendance for the four-month meeting was nearly 33,000, the average handle $5.9 million. For the track's major attraction, the Santa Anita Handicap, a crowd of 85,527 bet $12.6 million, an American record.
What makes Santa Anita the most successful race track in the country? At one time the answer appeared to be the geographical advantages of California. Unlike the East, where half a dozen tracks may operate simultaneously within a 100-mile radius, California is comfortably insulated. Although there is some quarter-horse and harness racing here, the state's thoroughbred tracks are largely shielded from competition for the parimutuel dollar.
But this fall, the business at Hollywood Park has plunged dramatically, proving that California geography won't guarantee a successful business. Santa Anita obviously has special virtues.
Its physical beauty, with gardens in the paddock and the San Gabriel Mountains behind the backstretch, has been its prime asset since Dr. Charles Strub built the track during the Depression.
"You'd think the average race-tracker wouldn't care," said William Murray, the author of several novels about hard-knocking race-trackers. "But they really do. Santa Anita is so aesthetically pleasing that it's a pleasure to walk in there. I don't get that feeling of pleasure at Hollywood Park, and I certainly don't get it at Aqueduct or Belmont."
The big crowds here generate big handles that generate big purses that give Santa Anita an extremely high quality of day-to-day racing and a superb stakes program.
Virtually every good older horse in the country is a candidate for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap -- "the Big 'Cap" to the locals -- on March 2. With so much to offer, Santa Anita officials don't have to do much more than open the gates and let the crowds pour in. Yet, surprisingly, this is one of the most promotion-conscious tracks in the country.
It seems almost superfluous, but the track periodically boosts its crowds with high-quality giveaways -- Santa Anita tote bags, money clips, etc.
"If properly done, the giveaways are very important," said vice president Alan Balch. "They do what in business school we'd term 'enhancing brand loyalty.' It increases the patrons' affection. They might say, 'Oh, yeah, I go to Hollywood some of the time, but Santa Anita is my track.' "
When Santa Anita lures big crowds, it has places to put them. At other places, a big day is almost counterproductive. How many casual fans want to return to Pimlico for a normal day at the races after battling the mobs on Preakness day?
One of Santa Anita's great resources is its well-developed infield -- with ample numbers of betting windows, television monitors, concession stands and benches -- plus recreation areas for children. It attracts so many people that the grandstand won't feel jammed even when the attendance is 60,000.
Santa Anita's management often is accused of being a bit stuffy, a bit elitist, but the public here knows that this management is genuinely concerned about its well-being and that of the sport. "In our research," Balch said, "a lot of people cite the word 'class' when they talk about what they like about Santa Anita."
Over the years, horseplayers here have complained bitterly about California's failure to publish the names of horses who were being treated with Lasix. The state's Racing Board wouldn't take any action. So Santa Anita acted on its own and began to publish a daily Lasix list, simply because management thought it was the right thing to do.
Judging from the figures, they are doing a lot of things right.