This time of year means lots of things to lots of people. The celebration of Christmas is always a real biggy. The ringing in of a new year is also high on the charts. But this year especially, opening day at Santa Anita should be up there in the rankings as well.

Obviously, the opening paragraph deserves a bit of an explanation. For years, this hillbilly turf writer has said the omens of Thoroughbred racing ring true in everyday life. With that in mind, we will quickly explain how all of us could use the Great Race Place as a shining example in the Derby we call life.

It wasn’t that long ago the rock throwers were slinging boulders at this historic track because of some unfortunate tragedies. Athletic injuries occurred at an alarming rate during both training and racing. Far too many Thoroughbreds lost their lives and we still have more questions than answers. The bottom line, however, was something that nobody wanted.

Armchair quarterbacks and second guessers are always front and center in these situations, but seldom does their criticism contain corrective action. Refusing to hide from the challenges presented, the horse racing community knew this thing wouldn’t just go away if they tried to crawl under a rock or point fingers at others. Instead, proactive measures were taken and the choice to wrestle the situation like a wild animal was made.

After changes on many fronts, Santa Anita enjoyed the safest racing season of any track in the United States during their 2020 run. Through diligence and dedication to the thousands of people involved in this wonderful sport, a thriving year produced many highlights.

“My hat is off to Belinda Stronarch and the management team at Santa Anita,” says Doug O’Neill, a four-time leading trainer at Santa Anita. “They have all worked very hard to make things safe not only for the horses but the people too. During a very trying year they really stepped up to the plate and the results are proof their plan was executed with great integrity.”

O’Neill himself was very active in voicing concerns about the well-being of a sport that has been a staple in Southern California since the 1930’s. Seeking to protect all those involved, the two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer made like Andre the Giant in body-slamming falsehoods about the viability of the sport of kings in today’s world.

“I am proud to have maybe played a small part in preserving the sport as we have known it,” says a humble O’Neill. “So many families depend on this sport for their livelihood . Their way of life was at stake. Many people choose to make this their living because they love these animals and enjoy being a part of something big. Once again I think the track and many others have done a brilliant job of handling a tough situation and really turning things around.”

As is the case with most sports, our what have you done for me lately world means this latest opening day starts everything over. With six stakes races scheduled for December 26 including three grade 1’s, the pressure to produce is once again the here and now. When Dr. Charles Strub opened this piece of heaven beneath the San Gabriel Mountains on December 25, 1934, he absolutely knew what he was doing. After a lot of hard work and dedication, it is apparent the people in charge now have an idea about handling big challenges too.

“Opening day at Santa Anita is always a special time,” says O’Neill. “It truly is one of the most beautiful places in the world and it marks the start of a new racing season here in California.”

First post at the Great Race Place on Saturday, December 26 is slated for 11 am Pacific.