Christmas morning … a time for family, fellowship, generosity and gratitude. For many Americans, it is a time for spiritual celebration. A holiday unlike any other, full of good tidings and cheer and a trip to the racetrack.
Actually, if you head to the racetrack with your family on Christmas Day, you’re going to be there by yourself, and you’re going to look like lunatics who may or may not have a gambling problem. But believe it or not, Christmas Day is celebrated with horse racing in places all over the world - from the UK to Chile to South Africa. And, once upon a time Christmas Day was a huge day for horse racing in the United States, too. It was the traditional opening day at Santa Anita Park in Southern California.
When California legalized pari-mutuel betting in 1933, there was a mad dash by the sport’s wealthiest entrepreneurial fans to build racetracks. Many of the investors had trouble raising enough money or finding suitable locations. A successful dentist named Charles H. “Doc” Strub couldn’t find a good location in Northern California, and bigshot movie producer Hal Roach wanted to reopen the shuttered Santa Anita Park in Southern California but couldn’t raise enough money. Strub and Roach teamed up and formed the Los Angeles Turf Club. They opened the first licensed racetrack in California on Christmas Day 1934.
OPENING DAY AT SANTA ANITA, 1934
Strub was a successful businessman, but he had lost more than a million dollars in the Great Depression, the throes of which the United States still found itself that Christmas. Although the Los Angeles Turf Club had the money to build the track and get the doors open, they weren’t flush enough to comfortably book everybody’s wagers.
Strub went to the bank and took out a loan to make sure he could fade every bet. The bank was understandably worried about the loan. They attached unusual conditions to the loan. It needed to be repaid that very night, and the bank hired armed guards to stand watch at the racetrack and make sure the money made it back to the bank.
Despite the Great Depression, and despite it being the holiest of holy days, when Strub opened Santa Anita for business that Christmas, more than 30,000 fans streamed through the gates. Among the crowd of punters were some of the day’s biggest celebrities, including Al Jolson, Will Rogers and Clark Gable. They pumped more than a quarter of a million dollars through the betting windows that day. A filly named High Glee won the big race of the day, the $5,000-added Christmas Stakes. The bank was paid back without incident.
Santa Anita continued to open its meet on Christmas Day for several years. However, there was some criticism of the idea of horse racing on such an important religious holiday. Strub wrote off the naysayers, arguing that Christmas shouldn’t be a somber holiday and instead should be a day of celebration. What better way to celebrate, he figured, than a day at the track? To Strub and thousands of horse racing fans, the two things went hand in hand.
Eventually Strub and Santa Anita relented. By 1949, Santa Anita moved opening day to Dec. 26, which has remained, with only a handful of exceptions, the traditional opening day ever since. In the end, there simply wasn’t enough room for more than one Santa on Christmas Day.