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"The Big Meet" Gets Underway at Santa Anita

Santa Anita Park
"The Big Meet.”

That’s what any trainer worth his cell phone bill calls the season that gets underway at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.

Santa Anita’s Winter Meet will run through April 20 and will be followed for the first time by a separate Spring Meet, which starts April 25 and concludes June 29. The additional dates were gained through Hollywood Park’s succumbing to the inevitable, closing its doors forever after Sunday, the lush and historic Inglewood site to be razed for real estate development.

Singer/song writer Joni Mitchell nailed it in her 1970 classic, Big Yellow Taxi: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

But life goes on, and horsemen and fans alike now await what traditionally is California’s “Big Meet,” that starts the day after Christmas and rolls on for 69 racing days.

Some might feel “The Big Meet” is an inadequate term, a slight to one of racing’s greatest venues, both in prestige and ambiance, one that kicks off a New Year filled with hopes and dreams.

But not so Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill and John Sadler, who combined have captured all but three of Santa Anita’s training titles since the 1994-95 season, Baffert winning a record 11, seven of them in a row from 1996-97 through 2002-03.

“This meet starts the New Year and we look forward to it,” Baffert said. “I don’t look at it as ending the year, but rather kick-starting the new one, even through it starts in December. It’s Christmas every day for us here. There’s nothing like opening day.”

True enough, but short term/long term, The Great Race Place will be in uncharted territory when it runs beyond its traditional late April dates.

“We’ll just have to see how it plays out,” Baffert said. “This meet starts out strong, then it hits a lull, but every year at the end of the meet, it seems to pick up again, like people can’t get enough of it.

“Maybe that will carry on through June, because I’ve always noticed a surge when the weather’s perfect. That’s when people like to come out and enjoy the beauty of Santa Anita, the backdrop, the mountains.

“Plus, there’s been a lot done to improve and enhance the grandstand and other areas for the bettors. There’s a great deal of anticipation, and I think as long as we have the quality of horses, the fans will come out.”

O’Neill’s enthusiasm for opening day is unfettered.

“There’s no better day in California racing than the day after Christmas at Santa Anita,” said the trainer who saddled the last two upset winners of the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby king I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Goldencents this year.

"It’s a boost to everyone: the owners, the help, the bettors,” O’Neill said. “It’s a real exciting start to the new season. Everyone feels great on opening day at Santa Anita.”

Sadler expressed similar sentiments.

“It is the start of the calendar year, and obviously they have great dates, and everybody’s looking forward to it,” Sadler said. “We always do, every year.”

Asked about the extension of Santa Anita’s season, Sadler expressed a vested interest, albeit tongue-in-cheek. A Californian through and through, Sadler was born in Long Beach but now resides in Pasadena, home of the fabled Rose Bowl, only a few furlongs West of Santa Anita down the 210 Freeway.

“Well, it’s a lot less driving for me,” he said. “They refer to my neighborhood as the Rose Bowl, so I’ll be spending less time on the freeway. We’re looking forward to that.

“We’ll see how the new calendar does,” Sadler added on a serious note. “I don’t
think anybody knows for sure how it will play out, but we’re going to get ready and go.”





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