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Santa Anita opens Autumn meeting optimistic it can avoid shrinking fields

As Southern California enters its stretch run of horse racing for the year, slight signs of optimism have surfaced as Santa Anita gets ready to start its 18-day Autumn racing season Friday.

The Santa Anita meeting comes on the heels of a successful summer meet at Del Mar where field size and mutuel handle were up. The two metrics are tied together because bigger field sizes increase the money bet on the races.

Santa Anita does have a built-in disadvantage compared with Del Mar when it comes to field size because there is no racing at Golden Gates Fields during most of the Del Mar meeting and some of those horses come south.

With all that factored in, Nate Newby, Santa Anita’s general manager, is optimistic.

“There is an uptick [in the number of horses] since the summer,” Newby said. “If you look at the combined numbers between Santa Anita, San Luis Rey Downs [training facility] and Los Alamitos, we have over 2,600 at the three facilities. Recently it’s been as low as 2,100. It peaked at Del Mar when the Golden Gate horses came down, but went down a little when they went back. But we should have enough to put on a good meet.”

Through the first two days of the upcoming Santa Anita meeting, the track is averaging 7.7 entries a race. The track averaged 7.09 runners in its marathon winter-spring meeting.

Del Mar averaged 9.14 runners per race in its summer meeting.

Especially noticeable has been the shrinking size of stakes race fields, but not just at Santa Anita. This summer, Saratoga had many small fields, something Del Mar seemed to avoid. On Saturday, of the six stakes, two have six entrants and the remainder have seven, eight, nine and 10 horses. The major race in New York on Saturday, the Woodward Stakes, has only five entrants, but one, Life Is Good, is such a heavy favorite that it might have discouraged entries.

Horses race at Santa Anita during the 2021 Autumn meet.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Santa Anita will have a new turf course — which typically draws bigger fields — for this meeting, something that has been done the last few years at this time of year.

“The Bermuda [grass] course looks great,” Newby said. “We’ve put down new sod on the oval part of the turf course, but not the downhill course. We used to do just the heavy traffic parts of the course, but now we do the whole course. We’ll likely do it again next summer.”

Newby estimated the cost at about $400,000 not including labor. The track also spent about $7 million on a water storage upgrade, something that will mostly be invisible to race fans.

The racing schedule is heavily weighted to the first two weekends. On Saturday, there will be six stakes and four on Sunday. Both days will have a Breeders’ Cup qualifying race. The following Saturday, there will be three Breeders’ Cup qualifying races.

The timing on races is based on spacing between it and the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 4-5 at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. Next year, the Breeders’ Cup will be at Santa Anita on Nov. 3-4.

The big race Saturday will be the Grade 1 $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes with a winner getting an automatic berth into the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The favorite is likely to be Country Grammer, winner of the Dubai World Cup. Also in the race are Royal Ship, winner of the San Diego Handicap, High Connection, winner of the Los Alamitos Derby and Express Train, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap.

Who you won’t see is Flightline, potentially a horse of a generation. He has won all five of his races, including the Pacific Classic at Del Mar by 19¼ lengths. Country Grammer was second in that race, causing his trainer, Bob Baffert, to joke that his horse probably thought he won the race because he didn’t see anyone in front of him.

Flightline stables and trains at Santa Anita and Newby said he would welcome it if trainer John Sadler wanted to move a workout to the afternoon during a race card instead of the morning. If Sadler, as expected, keeps all his workouts in the morning, Newby said the track would promote them at Clockers’ Corner. Flightline’s next race is scheduled to be the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Another interesting race Saturday will be the Grade 2 $200,000 Santa Anita Sprint Championship, which signals the return of Forbidden Kingdom, an early favorite at the last Kentucky Derby. After winning the San Felipe Stakes by 5¾ lengths he was the even-money favorite in the Santa Anita Derby. But after he finished a well-beaten sixth it was determined he had an epiglottis issue and he hasn’t raced since.

On Sunday will be the $100,000 Speakeasy Stakes with a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at stake.

Santa Anita will race Friday through Sunday until Nov. 6 with the exception of Oct. 10 when there is a holiday card and no racing that Friday. Post either will be 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. depending on the number of races.

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