As the horses returned to Santa Anita this weekend, folks visiting the track noticed something else: A major $15 million renovation, giving the venue a facelift and bringing in more gourmet food and beverage options, among other things. We were invited to visit the track this weekend by America's Best Racing, the marketing arm of the Jockey Club, which is looking to promote horse racing to a younger generation across the country. The Jockey Club has sent a group of brand ambassadors around the country to call some attention to the nation's top racetracks and bring in people who might not otherwise visit.
And indeed, other than a visit years ago to Hollywood Park, the only exposure I've had to horse racing in recent years was the sad events that led HBO to cancel "Luck" (which was shot at Santa Anita). Our recent stops at Santa Anita were for CalPhil concerts and the 626 Market.
But there's something unique about visiting Santa Anita in the morning, early, as the crowds are light, the weather is beautiful and the San Gabriel Mountains shine in front of you. ESPN visited the renovated Santa Anita recently for this report:
They are trying to create a facility that will make the fan experience so special that people, whether new to the sport or regular horseplayers, will keep coming back.
"The experience of racing begins at the track," said Tom Ludt, Senior VP of Racing and Gaming for the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. "No one gets hooked on racing by going to an OTB or watching a simulcast. The sport has been struggling when it comes to attendance and we believe one of the reasons for that is the experience people have at the racetrack. The initiative we have taken here is all about the on-track experience, about the food, the seats, cleanliness, the experience a fan has. It's just like what stadiums and other venues in other sports have done, realizing they had to change."
Several areas of the track have been modernized and improved. A special room reserved for high rollers has been built. Santa Anita has also invested big dollars in how its races are shown in some areas of the building. Certain areas will feature giant "tile technology" TV screens with surround sound audio.
"We have audio visual technology that is off the charts," Ludt said. "When the horses break out of gate and those speakers get booming, you'll feel like you're in a theater atmosphere."
The irony is that Santa Anita, pre-renovation, was already one of the world's most beautiful racetracks. But the management team there realized that if they were going to get people to come back to the racetrack they had to make the place even better.
Even with the renovations, Santa Anita, like so many tracks, will still struggle with the problem of being way too big for its own good. Tracks like Santa Anita and Belmont were built in an era when the buildings needed to accommodate huge crowds. With those days long gone, there can be an emptiness to these tracks that can ruin a fan's experience all by itself. There's just something very depressing about a huge building with no one in it.
More pics from our day at Santa Anita: