Week In Review: Racing On Christmas A Thing of the Past, But Legend Lives On

Santa Anita Paddock | Benoit


The annual Dec. 26 start of the Santa Anita season has a natural, anticipatory, turn-the-page vibe to it. But this mark-your-calendar Opening Day mainstay hasn't always been a post-holiday tradition. Although Santa Anita has kicked off its winter/spring meet on the day after Christmas every year since 1977, the track originally opened in 1934 on Christmas Day itself, and did so for the first four years of its existence.

“Filmdom entirely forgot its world of make-believe to migrate to the Santa Anita track yesterday for the renewal of horse racing in Los Angeles,” the Los Angeles Times gushed when reporting on the huge turnout of Hollywood movie stars and celebrities when Santa Anita held its first-ever races on Dec. 25, 1934.

“They rubbed elbows with Angelinos and society folk, and jostled through the crowd of 30,000 spectators to get a hot dog or place a bet, and joined in the cheer that swept over the giant racing plant as the horses left the barrier for the first race,” the front-page spread stated.

History tells us that way back when, Santa Anita wasn't alone in racing on Christmas Day.

Thumb through chart books and old newspaper clippings, and you'll get a flavor of when Christmas in North America was more of a social holiday than a commercial one; when going to the races on Dec. 25 was a festive outing centered on celebrating with friends and strangers alike.

As far back as the 1880s and early into the 20th Century, Christmas Day racing was routine at major warm-weather North American venues such as Oakland, California; Havana, Cuba; Juarez and Tijuana in Mexico, plus at other, long-gone Thoroughbred outposts like Jefferson in Louisiana and Savannah, Georgia.

There is even evidence that “outlaw” Thoroughbred tracks in bone-chilling climes like New Jersey, Illinois, and Missouri raced on Christmas through roughly 1900, purely because people would turn out to bet on the low-level unsanctioned racing those venues offered. Action, after all, was action.

By 1938 though, Santa Anita opted to switch off of Christmas Day racing in favor of opening on New Year's Eve. That experiment didn't last, and for the better part of the next 15 seasons or so, the SoCal track's start date fluctuated within the last week of December depending on how the calendar fell.

The first Dec. 26 Santa Anita opener was not until 1949, according to a retrospective the Los Angeles Times ran in 2012: “Since 1952, the day after Christmas has been Santa Anita's opening day in all but five seasons, and all seasons since 1977. Now to open any other day would seem sacrilegious.”

The Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Tropical Park in Florida were the two main tracks on the continent that continued to card Christmas Day racing through the middle of the 20th Century.

Eventually, Florida's tracks became the only torch-carriers for Christmas Day racing in America. Calder Race Course embraced the tradition after Tropical closed in 1972, and Hialeah Park even briefly gave it a go when it reopened from closure in 1991.

Yes, Virginia, There Is…

The now-defunct Calder also often raced on Christmas Eve, too. The finale on Dec. 24, 1992, was a $7,500 claimer in which an aptly named mare called Silent Knight got pounded in the betting to 7-5 favoritism. She won, of course. The margin was a nose (presumably red).

You'd think Silent Knight's victory might go down in history as the all-time holiday hunch play.

It isn't.

That distinction belongs to a 9-year-old Canadian-bred named Santa Claus, who romped home first in a Christmas Eve claimer at the Fair Grounds in 1976, delivering a $7.20 win mutuel to his merry backers.

After arriving in the paddock with his tail tied in red and white ribbons and a festive stocking cap perched atop his head, Santa Claus trailed until the final turn in a 1 1/16 miles route race, then rushed up the rail with a flourish turning for home.

“Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus…” the track announcer began crooning, with the crowd laughing and joining in to sing the carol, according to the Associated Press account of the race.

The Grinch Known as Simulcasting…

You can bet that Hall-of-Fame jockey Mike Smith remembers the Christmas Day he spent at Calder in 1993.

Smith, 28 at the time and just emerging as a top New York-based rider, flew to Florida because he had a chance to tie Pat Day's then-record of 60 stakes wins in a calendar year. Smith caught a big break when the holiday feature, the Tropical Park Oaks, got split into two divisions at entry time. He landed on the two favorites-and in the winner's circle-with both mounts.

“Someone up there must be looking out for me, and these horses must know,” Smith said after the wins.

Five days later, back at Aqueduct, Smith would win his 61st stakes of the year, giving him sole possession of the record (which has since been Scrooged by several other riders). The feat helped him earn his first Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding jockey.

The following year, the 1994 Christmas Day program at Calder would turn out to be its last.

While the holiday cards were considered decent on-track days in terms of attendance and handle (6,473 people turned out to bet $925,632 on-track in 1994), by 1995 Calder management decided that it would rather forego racing on the holiday to be open the day after, when more off-track betting parlors and simulcast tracks nationwide would be open to import the signal.

Today, Camarero Race Track in Puerto Rico is the only North American track with regular racing on Christmas Day.

At all the stateside venues, not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse.

Yet it turned out that a sizable chunk of customers cried “Humbug!” when Calder pulled the plug on Christmas Day racing.

As Calder president Ken Dunn told the Miami Herald in 1995, for many people, the racetrack was a refuge (fast-forward to 2022: it still is). Particularly for the elderly who might not have family, going racing was a way to fill the hours.

Plus, Dunn added, “There are a lot of people who don't celebrate Christmas.”

Dunn's predecessor, the late Kenny Noe, who oversaw Calder during its decades-long run of holiday racing, told the Herald in that same article he had a different theory about why Christmas was so popular with racegoers.

“A lot of men would show up at the track and tell me their wives had told them to get the hell out of the house but be home by 4 o'clock for dinner,” said Noe, an old-school track exec who was never one to mince words.

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