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.
Okay, scratch that last part. 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. Bigshot movie producer Hal Roach wanted to reopen the shuttered Santa Anita Park in Southern California but couldn’t raise enough money. So, fate brought Strub and Roach together and they teamed up and formed the Los Angeles Turf Club. They opened the first licensed racetrack in California on Christmas Day 1934.
Even with the Great Depression, and despite it being the holiest of holy days, when Santa Anita opened for business that Christmas, more than 30,000 fans streamed through the gates. Among the crowd were some of the day’s biggest celebrities, including Al Jolson, Will Rogers and Clark Gable.
That crowd 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.
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 and Roach wrote off the naysayers, arguing that Christmas shouldn’t be a somber holiday and instead should be a day of celebration. And what better way to celebrate, they figured, than a day at the track?
Eventually Strub and Roach relented. By 1949, Santa Anita moved opening day to December 26th, which has remained, with only a few exceptions, the traditional opening day ever since.
In the end, there was only room for one Santa on Christmas Day. As it should be.