There is no doubt the economy is still bad and it’s no secret that thoroughbred racing is in dire straits, particularly in California where a shrinking horse population has led to smaller fields, purse cuts and dwindling on-track attendance.
But the sport got a shot in the arm Saturday when Santa Anita opened its 75th anniversary season with its biggest opening-day crowd since 1999. An on-track turnout of 35,292 was on hand to watch M One Rifle go gate to wire and give trainer Bruce Headley his first victory in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, Evita Argentina turn in a powerful performance to win the Grade 1 La Brea, The Usual Q.T. run his victory streak to six with a win in the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort Stakes and Victor Espinoza start the meet with a riding triple.
In another plus during these rough economic times, overall mutuel handle was up 1 percent Saturday despite the fact a couple of out-of-state betting hubs did not offer wagering on Santa Anita’s 10-race card.
M One Rifle, a California-bred son of One Man Army, won for the fourth time in eight tries, giving Headley his first Grade 1 victory since Street Boss won the 2008 Bing Crosby at Del Mar. The gelding snapped a three-race losing streak that came on the heels of a three-race winning streak.
Headley, never shy about voicing an opinion, took a swipe at the Breeders’ Cup process after the Malibu when asked if he’d considered supplementing M One Rifle to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Nov. 7 rather than running him in the Damascus Stakes earlier on the card.
“The Breeders’ Cup is greedy,” he said. “They’d have made me put $175,000 up, and how can a person put that much up? They charge you too much and then instead of putting it in the pot, they take it and put it in the executives’ pockets.”
Headley said the Malibu victory stacked up with any of his previous career victories except one — the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint that was won by Kona Gold.
“There will never be another Kona Gold,” he said.