DOWNTOWN — Santa Monican Mark Verge can remember the exact day he fell in love with horse racing.

It was March 22, 1981. His coach at St. Monica Catholic High School, Mike Amodei, took Verge and his best friend Doug O’Neill on a field trip to Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. to watch the thoroughbreds race — and place a few bets.

Despite being too young to legally wager, the teens took home some cash (a little over $100 each), and on the weekends following they would board a bus and venture back to the track on their own to gamble and soak in the scenery and pageantry at what some consider to be the most beautiful race track in the land.

They were hooked, so much so that O’Neill went on to become a successful trainer and has a horse named I’ll Have Another scheduled to run in this weekend’s Kentucky Derby, also known as the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Verge, 44, took a different path, but one that would eventually lead him back to Santa Anita.

After graduating from Santa Monica College and UCLA, Verge used his entrepreneurial spirit to create WestsideRentals.com, which helps landlords and tenants list apartments for rent online. That business boomed, affording Verge the opportunity to invest in restaurants and bars, a hotel — and in horses.

It was that involvement with horse racing — and a little luck — that helped him in February land his dream job as chief executive officer of Santa Anita.

Now he finds himself with the challenging task of breathing new life into the historic race track at a time when competition for entertainment dollars is high in Southern California and more scrutiny is being paid to the sport following fatalities.

Verge believes he is up to the challenge, and if he’s stressed at all, he isn’t showing it. He talks about the park, which hosted its first race on Christmas Day in 1934, as if it were a child’s favorite toy, not a dreaded homework assignment. His voice picks up when telling a reporter about the marketing plans he has and the buzz he wants to build by bringing in more celebrities (Dame Helen Mirren has already visited) and special events like concerts and festivals. (The track also hosts plenty of weddings, proms and other social functions.)

He’s brought in partners in the bar business to revamp the track’s drink menu and he’s excited about Santa Anita hosting The Breeder’s Cup — horse racing’s equivalent to the Super Bowl — this November, the sixth time the track has been home to the event.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Verge said Wednesday before boarding a flight to Kentucky to watch the derby and hang out with his old friend O’Neill. “I would do it for free, even though I shouldn’t say it.”

While the race season at Santa Anita may have ended last month, Verge shows no signs of slowing down. He’s turned over the keys to WestsideRentals.com to his brother and a longtime manager so that he can focus on the race track. He’s already getting some press.

As part of the Lakers Foundation fundraiser Tuesday night, Verge offered a 25 percent stake in a 4-year-old gelding named Siempre Mio — Always Mine — that Lakers’ stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were enamored with. The two ended up in a bidding war for the horse that Bryant, the ultimate competitor, won. Knowing how much Gasol wanted the horse, Verge offered him another 25 percent stake, as long as he made a separate donation to the foundation. Now all three are partners.

ESPN jumped on the story, as did other media outlets. It’s that kind of publicity that Verge believes he can bring with his contacts in Hollywood. That, coupled with his business acumen and willingness to think outside of the box, are the keys to success, said Chris Quinn, a longtime friend of Verge and vice president of sales and marketing at Santa Anita. (Quinn also shares ownership of Siempre Mio.)

“What Mark brings is just that passion to come to work every day,” Quinn said. “Mark is always selling Santa Anita, always selling horse racing and what a great game this is, whether you’re invested in it or not. He is the face of Santa Anita.”

That was one of his major selling points to owner Frank Stronach when the two met for lunch in February. Verge was surprised that Stronach wanted to meet with him in the first place. Feeling like he had nothing to lose, he gambled big, telling the eccentric billionaire everything he was doing wrong and how he could fix it. Verge essentially told Stronach that he was an absentee owner and needed someone on site to oversee operations and to schmooze. Verge, with all of his contacts, fit the bill.

Look for Santa Anita to increase its presence in SoCal. The goal is to bring people to the track for other events and then expose them to the sport of horse racing. Verge believes once they experience it first-hand, they’ll fall in love with it just like he did all those years ago.

“We’re going to bring some of that Westside flavor to the San Gabriel Valley,” Verge said with confidence.

“It’s a phenomenal place,” he said of Santa Anita. “It’s a jewel that just needs to be rediscovered.”

For more information about Santa Anita, visit www.santaanita.com, or call (626) 574-RACE.

kevinh@smdp.com