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Drop in Santa Anita betting could continue to get steeper

Horse racing’s two biggest year-end stories are the enormous drop in betting this first week at Santa Anita Park and the Eclipse Award voting for Horse of the Year.

The Santa Anita story is startling. By all accounts, handle is down more than 20 percent at the Arcadia, Calif., track in a year-to-year comparison. If the takeout increase was meant to improve purses, this won’t get it done.

Remember this, too: The actual increase won’t go into effect until Saturday. Does that mean Santa Anita’s handle will take another dip beginning Saturday? It’s a scary thought.

The surface switch to dirt was supposed to bring bettors back in droves. And, according to Santa Anita executives, only the top 1 percent of horseplayers are sensitive to takeout. I’ll be the first to applaud them when they get something right.

In Santa Anita’s defense, the loss of New York City off-track betting handle is a major hit. Terrible weather in the East might have impacted simulcast betting, too. Big bettors might be taking a wait-and-see approach until a dirt bias sinks in. Finally, common sense dictates that in a bad economy people are gambling less. Just look at our Las Vegas numbers.

On the Eclipse voting, I picked Zenyatta as Horse of the Year. Last year, I voted for her and Rachel Alexandra as co-champions because it was the right thing to do. Both went undefeated, and I thought comparisons were moot because they ran two entirely different campaigns.

This year, I had no inclination to give Blame the same credit as I did Rachel Alexandra. If Blame had won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and went undefeated, I probably would have gone in his direction. But I consider his loss to Haynesfield a negative.

In my mind, the filly Switch helped Zenyatta. Zenyatta critics said she beat nothing all year. Well, one of those fillies was Switch, who ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Then she won the Grade 1 La Brea at Santa Anita on opening day. She has the makings of a top contender in the older filly and mare division.

Zenyatta will rank among the greatest and most popular racehorses of all time. I make no apologies in voting for her. However, I wish she had ventured one time to Belmont Park or Saratoga to race.

Instead, her connections reran her 2009 campaign, which was not good enough to win her Horse of the Year, and yet are praying now for a different result in 2010.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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