Santa Anita Park couldn't have ordered up nicer weather Thursday for the traditional day-after-Christmas start to its winter/spring meeting.
"We always come to opening day," said Virginia Derossi of Manhattan Beach as she and her family basked in 80-degree sunshine next to the paddock area. "It's just our holiday tradition."
For horse racing fans, Santa Anita's opening — which drew a healthy 30,540 spectators — also was a welcome antidote to the final race Sunday at the 75-year-old Betfair Hollywood Park track, which is set to close.
"It's like going from a funeral to a celebration," said Ray Paulick, whose PaulickReport.com website chronicles the sport.
But there's a lot about Santa Anita, and thoroughbred horse racing in Southern California overall, that won't be traditional in 2014.
Betfair Hollywood Park's demise means other tracks — mainly Santa Anita — will pick up additional dates during the year.
So Santa Anita's winter/spring meeting, which in the past ended in April, will extend through June 29 (with a four-day break April 21-24).
The Del Mar track in San Diego County will have its normal summer meeting July 17 through Sept. 4, but it also will inaugurate a second meeting Nov. 7 through Nov. 30. There also are brief meetings at Los Alamitos and Pomona and a return to Santa Anita in the fall.
With Santa Anita now having live racing for nearly six continuous months to start the year, "everybody's going to have to adjust," trainer Barry Abrams said. "I think it will work out, but it's hard to say, we've never done it before."
For Santa Anita, the longer winter/spring meeting is another challenge for a track that has grappled with a steady drop in attendance for more than two decades, as have many racing venues.
In Santa Anita's winter/spring meeting a year ago, average daily attendance was 7,543, down from 22,893 in 1990-91. That's a result of several factors, including competition from simulcast wagering, Internet betting and casinos.
Yet those same outside means of betting have helped boost the handle, or total amount wagered, on Santa Anita's races. The average daily handle in the winter/spring meeting a year ago was $10 million, up from $7.3 million in 1990-91.
Even so, Santa Anita executives and others believe it's crucial to get more people to the track to secure new fans, regardless of whether they wager at the track or off-site.
And with the closure of Hollywood Park, "we need to make it work" at Santa Anita for horse racing to have a long-term future in Southern California, said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
"We all have to work together with [Santa Anita] management because this is it, this is the last stand," Baffert said. "We've got to make it go."
Santa Anita is making improvements to draw more spectators. This year it unveiled $15 million in renovations to the clubhouse mezzanine-level betting area and new concessions stands, among other upgrades. The track also is spending $3 million to build several corporate suites, and it's boosting its marketing and promotion budget by about 25% this year, to $6 million.
Santa Anita, which opened in 1934, is "a wonderful facility, but it's tired," said Tom Ludt, senior vice president for racing and gaming at Stronach Group, Santa Anita's parent company.
The renovations were "the first step" toward enhancing fans' experience, Ludt said. "Now we have to go out and promote it."
There were two $300,000, Grade I stakes races on the nine-race card Thursday — both won by longshots.
In the Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs, David Flores rode Baffert-trained Shakin It Up to victory, with Central Banker second. Shakin It Up, which went off at 17-1 odds, paid $36.00 to win.
In the La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Heir Kitty with Gary Stevens aboard edged Sweet Lulu, ridden by Rafael Bejarano. Heir Kitty, trained by Peter Miller, was 13-1 and paid $28.20 to win.