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Oak Tree Stands to Win : Horse racing: With baseball and hockey not being played, attendance at Santa Anita is likely to increase.

October 06, 1994|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The biggest baseball fan in the Santa Anita front office has mixed emotions about the players' strike that ended the season prematurely and canceled postseason play.

Cliff Goodrich, president of the track and a former collegiate pitcher whose career was curtailed by an arm injury, says he has never lost his passion for baseball.

"I go to about 20 Dodger games every year," Goodrich said, "and I'll bet I go to at least three times that many elsewhere. Sandlot games. I'll go watch a couple of American Legion teams play, even though I don't know anybody on either team."

Had the major league playoffs been played as scheduled Wednesday, Goodrich would have been at the opening of the Oak Tree Racing Assn.'s meet with one eye on the horses and the other on baseball telecasts. But there was no baseball, of course, leaving Goodrich a forlorn one-sport guy.

"No baseball playoffs or a World Series is bound to help this meet," Goodrich said. "How much is hard to say. But even if it's only 200 or 300 extra people a day, that will make a difference."

With the NHL season stalled by the owners' decision to delay the start, Steve Keller, Santa Anita's board chairman, said: "During the week, with no football, we're the only game in town."

That lone game seemed to benefit Wednesday from the lack of competition.

"Before we got all the rain (Wednesday morning), I thought we might draw 33,000 on-track," said Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of Oak Tree. "Then when it rained for an hour and a half, I lowered that figure to 24,000. Yet we had 33,511 despite the weather. Was it because of no baseball? I think you can draw that conclusion. No baseball will help our business."

Wednesday's overall handle, counting satellite locations, was $8.5 million, a record for an Oak Tree opener and an increase of $400,000 over last year. A year ago, in better weather, the Oak Tree opener drew 35,400. This time, with a beer-stein giveaway at the track as well as at satellite betting locations, the overall crowd was 53,842, which was down about 2,500 from 1993. If the handle suffered because the two grass races were moved to the dirt, resulting in six scratches, it was boosted because Santa Anita was able to offer full-card betting on the races from Bay Meadows for the first time.

Business has been better at Bay Meadows during the baseball shutdown. The San Mateo track is not far from Candlestick Park, where the San Francisco Giants play.

"We're up about 14% in handle for the first 26 days of the meet," said Sam Speer, a Bay Meadows spokesman. "Last Friday, our handle was up $300,000, and Saturday we were up $500,000. Even on Sunday, with the 49ers playing at home, we were up $400,000 over the previous year.

"We were taking all of the races from the county fair at Pomona, which we weren't able to do last year, so that's the majority of the increase. But the absence of baseball has helped in the coverage we're getting in the newspapers. They've had space to fill that might otherwise have gone to the playoffs and the great years that Barry Bonds and Matt Williams were having for the Giants. Now when I pitch a story, they're more likely to be interested.

"To use the baseball vernacular, I'm not hitting them any harder, but more of them are falling in."

One of the fans at the Oak Tree opener Wednesday was Stan Matthews, a Covina resident wearing his Dodger cap.

"Yeah, I'm a baseball fan too," Matthews said. "But I would have been here today either way, betting horses and watching the game on television if there had been one. No baseball will help racing the next couple of weeks, though. Instead of watching the World Series, people will be looking for other ways to entertain themselves."

Del Mar, which showed small gains in on-track attendance and handle for the seven-week season that ended in mid-September, accounted for most of the increases at the start of the meet, before the baseball players struck. But Del Mar's entertainment competition from baseball might be considered marginal, because the local team is the San Diego Padres.

"There was no big difference in our business after the ballplayers struck," said Joe Harper, the Del Mar president who was at Santa Anita Wednesday. "Our gains at the start of the meet might have been because of an aggressive promotional push."

At Bay Meadows, Speer feels that football, because of its widespread popularity with bettors, is more of a rival for racing than baseball.

Santa Anita's Keller said that the absence of baseball will help Oak Tree more than the hockey lockout.

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