By Margaret Ransom
Santa Anita Park kicks off its annual winter/spring season on Saturday with an 11-race card featuring six graded stakes races and seven overall, highlighted by the Malibu Stakes, La Brea Stakes and American Oaks, the last three Grade 1’s of 2019, and all worth $300,000.
The stakes-rich, extra-race day is due to the postponement of the track’s traditional day-after-Christmas opening due to heavy rains that pounded the area all week — forcing opening day stakes to be rescheduled. With the weather cleared, an exciting day of racing under sunny skies is expected.
No doubt the track’s owners, The Stronach Group, are relieved to be starting a new season of racing after a disastrous 2019 that saw nearly three dozen dead horses in nearly six months and a mountain of unwanted media scrutiny and criticism from animal rights advocates.
With enhanced safety protocols, including a state-of-the-art equine MRI machine, a seven-member panel of veterinarians and experts to examine each horse working and running, as well as a race-day medication and jockey whip use overhaul, Santa Anita is ready to tackle the new season.
Additionally, the California Horse Racing Board approved a new Inclement Weather Policy to determine if the track is deemed safe for racing and training during or just after a major weather event. It is this policy that The Stronach Group officials and state officials used when deciding to postpone the opening day.
Some of the policy’s main points include severe or harsh weather conditions from extreme temperatures and high winds to lightning and precipitation. Changes in racing or training will be made in coordination with the track’s superintendent, management, The Jockeys Guild and the CHRB’s safety steward with notification to the TOC and CTT. Also, horses will not be permitted to train over sealed tracks.
The winter-spring season also includes 12 days that must be taken off during that six-month stretch. Those dates are not specifically listed, as the CHRB intends to give Santa Anita the flexibility to cancel. Santa Anita must receive approval from the CHRB chairman or executive director before any cancellations.
(For a complete rundown of this policy, click here: http://www.toconline.com/publicationsmedia/inclement-weather-protocol/)
A total of 93 stakes are on tap during the 97-day meeting, which concludes on June 21.
Led by the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 4, the schedule is rich with Kentucky Derby (G1) prep races and coveted Road to the Derby points offerings, and includes the Sham Stakes (G3) on Jan. 4, worth 10 points to the winner; the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G2) on Feb. 1, also worth 10 points; and the San Felipe Stakes (G2) on March 7, which guarantees 50 Derby points to the winner. The Santa Anita Derby awards 100 Kentucky Derby points to the winner.
Overall, 19 winners of the Santa Anita Derby have gone on to wear the garland of roses in Louisville on the first Saturday in May, the most recent being 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify.
This year, the historic Santa Anita Handicap will be worth $600,000 and the 1 ¼-mile event has been scheduled for March 7. Since its inception in 1935 during the Southern California track’s inaugural season, the winner’s list for the signature event is nothing short of legendary. Seabiscuit captured the 1940 renewal after falling just short in his two previous attempts. Round Table, Prove It, Lucky Debonair, Ack Ack, Triple Bend, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Broad Brush, Alysheba, Best Pal, Free House and Shared Belief are just some of the other names to have reached the storied winner’s circle. But perhaps the best known victors are two-time heroes John Henry, Milwaukee Brew and Lava Man, as well as three-time winner Game On Dude.
Post time on weekends is 12:30 p.m. while post time on weekdays beginning in the New Year will be 1 p.m. Post time on Santa Anita Derby Day will be noon and post time on Sunday, Feb. 2, for Super Bowl Sunday is 11 a.m.
First post on Saturday has been set for 11 a.m. to accommodate the 11 races.
Racing will be conducted on a Thursday-through-Sunday schedule except for Monday, Jan. 20, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, Feb. 17, for Presidents Day and May 25 for Memorial Day.
Race goers also will be offered the same comprehensive pari-mutuel betting menu they’ve grown used to over the years. In addition to a $750,000 guaranteed Late Pick 4 pool on Opening Day, an additional 50-cent Pick 5 will be available, the Rainbow Pick Six Jackpot will remain in place as will the popular 50-cent Early Pick 5.
Santa Anita will also continue to offer the lowest takeout for any major track. The betting menu also will continue to provide $1 exactas, $2 rolling Daily Doubles, $1 rolling Pick 3s, an early and late 50-cent Pick 4, as well as ¢.10 Superfectas and the $1 Stronach Five, a $1 wager involving races from all of The Stronach Group tracks with a 12 percent takeout every Friday.
Also returning for its second season is the 50-cent Jackpot Super High 5 in all races with seven or more declared starters. The Jackpot Super High 5 requires players to select the first five finishers in each race in exact order. For each race that fails to produce a single ticket winner, 75 percent of the net pool will be paid out to those tickets that have correctly selected the first five winners and 25 percent of the net pool will be carried over to the jackpot pool. If there are no tickets with five winners, 100 percent of the net pool will be carried over to the next Jackpot Super High 5 race. There will be a mandatory Jackpot Super High Five payout should nobody win at the conclusion of the season.
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com, where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters: Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.
After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager.
She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several racehorse retirement organizations, including CARMA.
In 2016, Margaret was the recipient of the prestigious Stanley Bergstein Writing Award, sponsored by Team Valor, and was an Eclipse Award honorable mention for her story, “The Shocking Untold Story of Maria Borell,” which appeared on USRacing.com. The article and subsequent stories helped save 43 abandoned and neglected Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and also helped create a new animal welfare law known as the “Borell Law.”
Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull and Arrogate as her favorite horses of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, two Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.