The day after Christmas is opening day at Santa Anita Park, and this year the Arcadia horse racing track began its 77th winter/spring meeting with a huge crowd that included 83-year-old Ben Matsumura.
Matsumura was 12 the first time he came to Santa Anita. But it wasn't to see the ponies.
"They had an assembly center here during the war," Matsumura said.
That would be World War II. And by “assembly center,” Matsumura means a place where Japanese-Americans like him waited after being rounded up by the federal government while it constructed the internment camps for which they were destined. Matsumura and his family lived at Santa Anita for a year.
"They had barracks in the parking lot. Some people lived in, uh, stables, and the streets were all named after horses, so I got to know all the horses," said Matsumura.
When the war ended in 1945, Matsumura came back.
"I got interested in horse racing because I was here before, and I’ve been coming ever since," he said.
Santa Anita’s opening comes just days after the Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood closed for good. Santa Anita spokesman Mike Willman says he’s sad to see the end of horse racing at Hollywood Park, but it’s an opportunity for his racetrack. In the past, Santa Anita stopped running live races in April, but with the closure of Hollywood Park, will keep going through June.
"It makes Santa Anita much more viable, certainly from a bottom line standpoint. This is a massive facility, and it costs a lot of money to maintain, to operate, and a lot money to maintain whether you’re running here or not," said Willman.
Willman said the additional dates means for the first time, Santa Anita will be running during horse racing’s Triple Crown events, and he expects a lot of visitors on those days - especially if a Southern California horse is a contender.