Gallery: Santa Anita Park Opening Day
ARCADIA - Opening day for Santa Anita Park's 76th winter/spring meet delighted fans with mostly sunny skies and for some, a few moments with KISS frontman Gene Simmons.
In an impromptu photo session, Simmons - clad in a black pin-striped blazer, red handkerchief and his signature black leather pants - posed for photos while chatting casually with media and fans in the Paddock Garden.
"You can feel the excitement," Simmons, a savvy businessman who is now helping Santa Anita's parent company, The Stronach Group, with marketing and entertainment at its racetracks, said Wednesday shortly after the first race had posted. "First of all, Arcadia is just beautiful. The drive up here is just gorgeous. Even God likes it - look at the day. He placed the setting, the mountains, the location ... The people (working at the track) are nice too."
Despite early morning showers, most of the storm clouds cleared well in advance of the first post at noon. In preparation for the storm, workers sealed the main track surface overnight, and two of the three races that were slated for the turf were transferred to the main track.
As racetrack officials waited Wednesday to see how badly the forecast of rain would affect opening day attendance, they said they were grateful the weather ultimately broke in their favor.
"We're lucky it's cleared up," said Santa Anita Park President George Haines.
On track attendance on opening day was recorded at 27,273 this year, compared to last year's 55,000-plus attendees, said Mike Willman, a racetrack spokesman. In addition to the early rain, last year's opening day took place on a Monday, when most people had the day off, he said.
An hour before the first race, David Felton of Las Vegas, a retired letter carrier who has been coming to the meet's opening day for about 25 years, was at Clocker's Corner reviewing the horses. He said he comes to opening day as much for Santa Anita's traditional wall calendars that he collects as for wagering on the thoroughbreds.
Felton became interested in horses in the mid-90s when he scored two pick sixes in a month's time, earning him about $325,000.
"They are beautiful animals," Felton said. "They don't know you bet on them and that's why they're a good bet, not like the Dallas Mavericks, messing around with a 12-point spread in the NBA.
Also at Santa Anita Wednesday was Sharon Cahill of Sierra Madre, who has been coming to the racetrack since her high school days. Although she was too young to bet at the time, Cahill would bring family friends to the track and tell them which horses to bet on, she said.
Cahill, 66, found out the day before Thanksgiving that she has stage 3 breast cancer and will begin her chemotherapy treatment on Jan. 3. She will then have surgery and another round of chemotherapy and radiation.
"I thought I would come and enjoy it while I can," she said, noting she's not sure how the chemotherapy will affect her.
Cahill, who is now reading "Seabiscuit," said she hadn't been following the horses too closely in recent months and thus was not planning to wager on Wednesday. She has always enjoyed seeing the "sheer power" of the 1,000-pound thoroughbreds thundering down the track under the command of petite jockeys.
"I'm just hoping I can come back here and enjoy them next year," she said.