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BILL DWYRE

Breeders' Cup should make itself at home here

Santa Anita showed what it can do the last two years and should be considered for the permanent sight of horse racing's world championships.

November 09, 2009|BILL DWYRE

For 26 years, one of the jewels of horse racing has wandered the country like a nomad. Now, it is time to find a permanent home for the Breeders' Cup.

Listen up, racing officials. Have we got a deal for you!

Right here in sunny Southern California, where the temperatures will still be hanging around 75 degrees in early November, there is this racetrack that might work well. It is called Santa Anita and has been there so long, seen so much history and become such a huge part of the equine landscape that it is known as the Great Race Place.

That's not entirely undeserved hyperbole. Just walk into the paddock and read the plaque on the statue of Seabiscuit. Yup, that's where the great one became the richest horse in America by winning the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. Seems like they even made a pretty decent movie out of that.

Yes, we are talking about the same Santa Anita where you just finished your second straight home run of a Breeders' Cup. You had increases in attendance from last year's good show. When you get 96,496 people to show up over two days to anything these days -- sports, concerts, tractor pulls -- you've done well. This isn't exactly a shop-till-you-drop economy right now.

And when you get the on-track betting handle to actually go up both days, as well as the overall handle from all sources to increase one of the two days, you've lined up the three red sevens on your slot machine.

We don't just have the best weather. We have a huge population base, plus plenty of great restaurants and hotels and things to do. Yes, we have freeways that will drive you nuts, but in your business, the only thing worse than a jammed freeway is an empty one. We can promise you you'll never have the latter.

If you were, indeed, using the consecutive-year thing as an experiment, the results are in and the test tube turned the right color.

It's well known that your Breeders' Cup president and chief executive, Greg Avioli, called Zenyatta's spine-tingler Saturday "arguably the greatest performance in the 26-year history of the event."

What isn't well-known is that Avioli says he is "more than open" to making Santa Anita and its fall Oak Tree meeting the permanent home of the Breeders' Cup. There is a commitment to Churchill Downs in Louisville next year and what Avioli calls "some soft commitments" for a year or so after that.

We understand that. Business is business. There is good horse racing all over the country, not just in Southern California. Certainly, the task that Avioli and the Breeders' Cup have in site selection is as politically charged as a Fox newscast.

He knows that there is pressure to show the flag in Kentucky, the citadel of horse racing, and in New York, the citadel of chaos. He knows that it is nice to throw a bone to places like Woodbine in Toronto, Lone Star Park in Texas, Monmouth Park in New Jersey and Arlington in Chicago. But that, and $10 at Starbucks, gets you a cup of coffee.

He also knows that, because his event doesn't have the built-in buzz of a Super Bowl, 10 venues in 26 years can leave a disjointed feeling. And he knows there is a reason that eight of those 26 years have brought the event to Southern California, five to Santa Anita and three to Hollywood Park.

The last two at Santa Anita have been the start of something really good. Los Angeles likes major sporting events. Big Shows "R" Us. We are Hollywood, even if we often are cynical about that.

Last year at the Breeders' Cup, we saw something interesting, came out in decent numbers and liked pretty much everything except the ticket prices and the buy-both-days mandate. But we knew it was coming back, put it on the calendar and showed up much happier with better tickets prices and a recent memory of the fun it had been.

To be clear, there is no wild campaign on the part of Oak Tree officials to become the permanent home of the Breeders' Cup. Nor is there resistance to that, were it to happen.

Sherwood Chillingworth, Oak Tree's director and executive vice president, said he had dinner with one of the many visitors from England for the event and the visitor, citing weather and easy access by air and the picturesque mountains surrounding the track, asked the simple question: "Why don't they have this here every year?"

The question of dislike for Santa Anita's synthetic racing surface among Eastern horsemen remains. That cost the Breeders' Cup several key entries this year. But the strong European contingent that has made these last two Breeders' Cups so competitive and attractive will be much less likely to show up to run on the dirt at Churchill Downs in 2010. So you win some and lose some.

The synthetic question will be with us for a while, and the second straight Breeders' Cup with nary an injury says that it should not knock Santa Anita out of the conversation of a permanent site.

So let's talk, before the deserved glow of big crowds and sunny days and Zenyatta's dash into history fades. We'll do these discussions in true L.A. style.

We'll do lunch. Our people will call your people.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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