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Santa Anita Derby day could be turning point for venerable track

Saturday's 75th running of the Santa Anita Derby, a major Kentucky Derby prep race, will be keenly watched, especially by the track's new CEO, Mark Verge, who hopes for a crowd in the 40,000 range.

April 06, 2012|By Larry Stewart
  • Santa Anita officials are hoping for a strong turnout for Saturday's Santa Anita Derby.
Santa Anita officials are hoping for a strong turnout for Saturday's… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Racing at Santa Anita could very well be at a crossroads with Saturday's 75th running of the Santa Anita Derby. A good turnout might mean the track literally is on the verge of a new era. A poor turnout would be another black mark on the sport.

No one will be rooting harder for an attendance of around 40,000 than Santa Anita's new CEO, who, coincidentally, is named Mark Verge.

The Santa Anita Derby, which has produced 15 Kentucky Derby winners, offers a good field, headed by 6-5 favorite Creative Cause.

Paul Reddam, owner of the CashCall loan company, owns I'll Have Another, the 5-2 second choice in Saturday's race.

There's also the expected perfect weather, a media blitz orchestrated by Verge, and other factors that have the 44-year-old CEO reasonably confident. "I've reached out to all my contacts and done everything I can to generate interest in the Santa Anita Derby," Verge said.

He was an out-of-the-blue hire by Santa Anita's eccentric owner, Frank Stronach, who met Verge a few weeks before hiring him. Verge, a 1990 UCLA graduate, owns more than a dozen businesses, which include bars, restaurants and hotels. But he is probably best known as the owner of Westside Rentals, a business he founded in 1995 that lists rental property.

Verge has been working closely with Santa Anita's marketing chief, Chris Quinn, a longtime friend, and track President George Haines in his efforts to draw a crowd. "We have a T-shirt giveaway, we have a guaranteed $750,000 late Pick 4, and we have our traditional Derby Day 5K run in the morning," Quinn said.

Verge originally didn't want to be called CEO. But he changed his mind after a conversation with his friend J.K. McKay, associate athletic director at USC. "I told J.K. I felt like a 14-year-old kid with a new toy," Verge said. "He said, 'You're not a 14-year-old kid, you are a CEO of a major racetrack.' ''

The Santa Anita Derby, which will go off as the sixth race at 2:46 p.m., will be part of nationally televised horse racing coverage on NBC that runs from 1:30 to 3 p.m. NBC is also televising two other Kentucky Derby prep races, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York and the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, back home in Arcadia and back to work after suffering a heart attack in Dubai on March 26, has three horses in the Santa Anita Derby; Liaison, at odds of 8-1, is given the best chance of winning.

"We were hoping Liaison would run a little better last time," Baffert said, referring to a fourth-place finish 5½ lengths behind Creative Cause in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes on March 10. "He likes a little farther distance. I think the mile and an eighth will suit him better."

Another horse of interest is 8-1 choice Holy Candy, whose ownership includes Jenny Craig of weight-loss fame and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Holy Candy could be a late scratch if trainer John Sadler decides instead to run the son of Candy Ride in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14. Late Friday, Sadler was still undecided.

Most fans at Santa Anita on Saturday will be keeping their eyes on the tote board for odds and payoffs. Verge no doubt will have his eyes on the stands and parking lot, hoping that both are full.

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