John Pricci executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

With Some “Luck,” Santa Anita Can Rebound

SARATGA SPRINGS, NY, December 27, 2011—It’s more than a little premature, surely, but do you think that “Luck” might have brought some of that illusive gift to Santa Anita and, by extension, the game? One thing’s for sure: It certainly didn’t hurt.

OK, so some of the 44,579 were desperate for a free 2012 calendar which, if December ends on the 31st per usual, might scoop what the Mayans had in mind for the end of the coming year.

Or maybe many of the attendees were close friends or family to Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen, who likely needed help tightening the girth on seven of the 11 starters entered in the Malibu which, as a horse race, never fails to fire.

Whatever the reason, whatever the phenomenon, it was the largest gathering at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in 17 years on the day after Christmas, where people traditionally come to box exactas, not gifts "Boxing Day" in Arcadia is a completely different ballgame.

There were tourists and calendar collecting spinners in the crowd, to be sure, especially given that 44,000 people on track bet $4.2 million, a per capita of less than a C-Note, pari-mutuel chickenfeed by major track standards.

Maybe if David Milch, author of “Luck,” invited his Pick Six betting cronies to attend, handle might have better. It could be, however, that Lonnie had one too many house calls to make on Christmas Eve and was too bushed to get the boys in action.

Given all that, attendance was still up over 30 percent, a big number no matter no matter how you look at it. Maybe it’s also due to a period of cease fire, if only temporary, between activist horseplayers and Santa Anita, a betting détente following last season’s boycott.

The only metric to decline was simulcast intra-state wagering—as opposed to all-sources, which increased more than 9 percent, from $14.2 million to $15.3 million, indicating some Southern Californians spent their day in Arcadia.

If some of those people were moved to visit the set of “Luck,” Santa Anita was a clear beneficiary. And given the stunning backdrop it provides sports fans, why not?

"My dad started taking me to Saratoga at age 5 or 6,” Milch recently told the Los Angeles Times. “[Santa Anita’s] the most beautiful setting for horse racing I've seen and I'd include Saratoga. It never occurred for me to [shoot] it anywhere [else].”

And it was against that backdrop and over a newly refurbished surface that The Factor won the Grade 1 seven furlongs in a sudden 1:19.89, a time that only threatened but didn’t set a track record.

To his credit, Baffert has The Factor nearly back to where he was at this time last year, and might be his old dominant self again given similar efforts in future performances.

Asmussen’s Rothko was a menacing second heading into the lane but after altering course back inside at head-stretch, he faltered in the final furlong. Credit The Factor; don’t debit Rothko, making only his second start at the Malibu distance.

And so the people who filled the building Monday at Santa Anita saw how fast one racehorse can be and how another, from the same team that brought Zenyatta to Southern California and the world, John Shirreffs and Mike Smith, has championship potential.

Mr. Commons was dominant, taking the Grade 2 Sir Beaufort turf mile by a confident, fast-finishing 3-1/4 lengths in 1:33.84 at a value laden $4.20 on an opening day that also featured two stakes for horses bred in California.

In the same Times article, Milch later said: “The animals are so heart-stopping beautiful and the competition can lead to such joy and heartache. You get to see that play out every day at the track. You can't ask for anything more.

"The track is what the river was to Mark Twain. Where you see the most life and interesting people, go [to the track]. Faulkner said the stories of the human heart in conflict with itself are the stories worth telling.

“When you see people's lives — all of someone's dreams — determined one way or another by one race or the performance of a horse, that's the stuff of great drama."

Indeed, people-watching is a great part of the racetrack experience. And when it comes to opening days, Santa Anita may not be Del Mar, but it’s clearly a very special day on the SoCal racing circuit.

It’s like what Milch told the trade paper “Variety”: “[The racetrack] is about a bunch of intersecting lives in the world of horse racing...It's a subject which has engaged and some might say has compelled me for 50 years. I find it as complicated and engaging a special world as any I've ever encountered.”

Hopefully some of the newbies in the opening day crowd left Santa Anita Park feeling the same way.

Written by John Pricci

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