On a mild March morning in Arcadia, California, when the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains are white with snow and a faint mist still hangs in the eucalyptus and pepper trees, you can almost see the Garden of Eden this state used to be. Before the freeways were built and the orange groves turned into housing tracts, this fresh, gentle light must have seemed magical. At Santa Anita Park, the heart and raison d'être of Arcadia, it often still does. This is partly because of the pale blue-green Art Deco architecture, which dates to the early 20th century, when the racetrack was created. But mostly it's because Santa Anita is a self-appointed and very effective time machine. At the center of the elegant paddock's walking ring, where horses, jockeys, trainers, and owners gather for last words of instruction and encouragement before each race, stands a life-sized bronze statue of Seabiscuit, the greatest horse ever to have won the Santa Anita Handicap or, as many people will tell you, any other race. The early fameof Santa Anita, a place that set out from the beginning to deal in hope and glory, is wrapped up in that unlikely little horse, who rose from obscurity to become a national obsession in the late 1930s.
The business of Thoroughbred racing turns on the willingness of rational two-legged creatures to bet money on the behavior of fragile and temperamental four-legged creatures with a need for speed. But it wasn't a horde of Damon Runyonesque track fiends that sent author Laura Hillenbrand's book Seabiscuit: An American Legend sprinting onto best-seller lists last year. It was millions of readers who'd never heard of a furlong but were ready, as always, to partake of a rousing tale of triumph over hardship. While maintaining a facility that has been in the avant-garde of every aspect of Thoroughbred racing since it was built in 1934, Santa Anita has always understood that racing is a show and a religion as much as a mirage of easy money. This is the realm of the hunch and the gut instinct, of superstition and luck, of physical beauty and surpassing spirit. The stuff of drama.
Seabiscuit toured America so extensively in his specially designed 40-foot Pullman car that a bit of his legend resides at just about every track in the country dating back far enough, but Santa Anita was his home base and quite fairly lays claim to him. The Santa Anita Handicap, topped only by the Triple Crown events for worldwide prestige, was the first $100,000 handicap in racing history, andthe scene of Seabiscuit's final, victorious race. Having lost the '37 and '38 Handicaps under punishing weights (which in a handicap race the fastest horses must carry to help even the odds), and having come back from what was believed to be a career-ending injury, Seabiscuit took the 1940 Handicap with his soul-mate jockey, Red Pollard, guiding the way. That heart-bursting display of genius and determination provides the climax of Hillenbrand's book—and a touchstone of Santa Anita's magic even today.
"I would kill to go to Santa Anita," says Laura Hillenbrand, who has been prevented by the debilitating effects of chronic fatigue syndrome from traveling to her hero's spiritual home. "I can watch a fraction of a second of a race on tape, and even if I can't see the San Gabriel Mountains, I know it's Santa Anita from the beautiful russet color of the dirt on the track. Everything about Santa Anita is beautiful. It's the cathedralof Thoroughbred racing."
Santa Anita Park was the inspiration of "Doc" Strub, the unusually entrepreneurial dentist who—along with Hal Roach, eponymous head of the studio famed for Laurel and Hardy films—masterminded the construction of the track in 1934. They built it on property that had once been part of the giant Rancho Santa Anita owned by rogue multimillionaire and Thoroughbred magnate "Lucky" Baldwin. (Racing lore is rife with exploits by people with nicknames, which seem to go with the love of horses and/or adrenaline.)
Today the racetrack is owned by Frank Stronach, an Austrian-born Canadian who made his fortune by creating an automotive-supply company called Magna International. Stronach started dabbling in Thoroughbreds back in the 1960s and now has close to a thousand of them, including '97 Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold and 2000 Preakness winner Red Bullet. His Magna Entertainment encompasses seven racetracks in the United States, Santa Anita being the jewel in the crown. The man likes racing, which is to say he likes winning, and upon taking over Santa Anita in late 1998, he immediately started updating the cathedral for its modern worshipers.
Forty million dollars later, there are those who think that he violated the sacred design of original architect Gordon Kaufman and who fear he is capable of going to Las Vegas-like extremes of aesthetic profanity. But in fact, all Stronach did was build FrontRunner, a first-rate clubhouse restaurant (improbably enough, it gets written up for its food) that looks out through massive panes of glass onto the track, with its backdrop of palm trees, pines, oaks, and the San Gabriel Mountains. He also built a giant electronic screen in the infield opposite FrontRunner so that all the spectators, but particularly the diners, could see races and replays writ larger than the monitors on individual tables permit.There were mutinous cries about the unforgivable intrusion on Santa Anita's gorgeous vista when this upgrade was announced, but after the first race was shown on the screen, there would have been a revolution if anybody had tried to take it away.
Frank Stronach's bold efforts had been needed for years. California racing suffered a triple blow beginning back in 1985, when the state lottery was initiated at the same time that Native American gaming was first permitted. Worse, by 1988, off-track betting had been legalized at 16 locations around the state.That last measure was supposed to bring more people to the track in the long run, but it had the not unforeseeable opposite effect. More than 78,000 people watched Seabiscuit run his great Santa Anita Handicap in 1940—a Super Bowl-size crowd. If there were a Seabiscuit at the moment (and there isn't) he wouldn't draw anything like that number. Thoroughbred racing is no longer the nation's number one spectator sport, as it was back in the 1930s, '40s, and well into the '50s.But it is still, arguably, the most astonishing display of athleticism to be seen anywhere, as well as one of the most dramatic forms of entertainment. And Stronach wants the public to recognize that.
Actually, Stronach could not have made a savvier marketing move, not even if he himself had hired Hillenbrand to write a book about Seabiscuit. Her contagious passion for Thoroughbred adventures has sent thousands of people to the track since the book broke cleanly from the gate with great reviews. And her compelling portraits of the idiosyncratic, colorful, crazy, and profound souls who live their lives at racetracks has given many of her readers a new perspective on today's players.
The most famous trainer working anywhere today, Bob Baffert is a funny, limelight-loving, self-effacing, prematurely white-haired Arizona native. His headquarters are in Santa Anita's Barn 1B, where signs announce HOME OF SILVER CHARM and HOME OF REAL QUIET. Neither of those stellar horses is there now; they're both in Kentucky, making far more money contributing their DNA to the future of Thoroughbred racing than they ever could have made risking their limbs on the track. But the back-to-back Triple Crown campaigns they ran in 1997 and 1998—each horse in its year taking both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and then losing the Belmont by a squeak—made a superstar of their trainer. Baffert went on to win the Preakness and Belmont last year with Point Given after losing the Derby. Right now he is spending every waking moment watching his talented youngsters who just turned three (convention turns all Thoroughbreds a year older on January first, regardless of birth date) to see which will be this year's Triple Crown contenders.
The great star among the world-class jockeys who ride regularly at Santa Anita—names like Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Gary Stevens—is Laffit Pincay Jr., who holds the world record for most career wins (9,000-plus and counting). It's often lamented among racing fans that horses are not recognized as the greatest athletes in the world, and that jockeys—who do not, contrary to appearances, merely encourage a horse to run and manage to remain in the saddle until it crosses the finish line—are even less appreciated. The strength, balance, focus, sensitivity, and nerve required to do what the 117-pound Pincay does on a daily basis—maneuver an 1,100-pound racehorse through a competitive minefield at 40 miles an hour—make him the athletic equivalent of Michael Jordan,Tiger Woods, and a boa constrictor combined. Now 55, Pincay has been known to take his shirt off on request to reveal a physique Sylvester Stallone would have envied at 30.
Horses from all over the world compete at Santa Anita, and their owners are seldom named Phipps or Whitney these days.Those who like to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, looking for the horse that will win them a race like the Santa Anita Handicap include everyone from Saudi Arabian Prince Ahmed bin Salman, proprietor of The Thoroughbred Corp., to Mike Pegram, the client/pal of Bob Baffert who named a horse Captain Steve in honor of the police captain who helped get him out of jail: (Pegram had tried to go through airport security with an unopened present from his girlfriend that turned out to be a gun.) But it would probably be Bob and Beverly Lewis, owners of Kentucky Derby winners Silver Charm and Charismatic, who are most prominent at Santa Anita just now. Lewis earned his horseplay money as the biggest distributor of Budweiser in the West, and he and his wife have made a second fortune at Santa Anita. New-style, unpretentious owners, the Lewises are far more likely to be seated at FrontRunner for the Santa Anita Handicap than in the formal and exclusive Turf Club.
If any one person could be said to represent the modern-day Santa Anita, though, it would probably be Trevor Denman. He is, quite literally, the voice of Santa Anita. From his aerie on the roof of the track he has called the races since he came to Arcadia from Durban, South Africa, in 1983, and he has done it in such an astute and original way that he's changed the way races are called across the United States. It's not Denman's elegant diction or his not-quite-English accent that most distinguishes him, though the latter adds character and makes for a degree of merriment when he is forced to call out a name like Little Snooter ("Lit-tell Snoooh-tah") several times in a single minute. It's something more fundamental. Race calling used to be primarily a matter of reporting which horse was where at any given moment. Sorting through a jostling blur of lunging Thoroughbreds while remembering names like Heightenedawareness is daunting enough. But having absorbed a South African mix of English and Australian traditions, Denman prefers to analyze a race as he describes it, saying something like "Silver Charm is full of run now" instead of simply "Silver Charm is third coming into the stretch."
Denman's uncanny ability to anticipate what will happen in a race is unmatched anywhere in the country and has enhanced Santa Anita's cachet. It's as if he can think with his eyes. "There's jockey language and there's horse language," he says. "Jockey language is through the hands, and horse language is through the ears and a little in the stride. You can definitely see it.
"Jockeys are each very distinctive," Denman continues. "Even if they were all wearing orange and had masks on, I'd know who they were. I can walk into a track, look up, see a horse running in the fifth, and say, 'Hey, that's Gary Stevens.' "
Trevor Denman's sophisticated approach to the business of race calling reflects a sensibility fed from nonracing sources. You learn only if you ask that his personal gods are not Seabiscuit or Secretariat but Shelley, Byron, and Keats, and that he rarely reads racing books, being drawn instead to the biographies of 19th-century writers. He is a reminder that many of the people you meet at a racetrack, particularly at a great one like Santa Anita, harbor tangential passions and have backgrounds that invest their personal stories with drama. Jockey Corey Nakatani, for example, is the son of a man who passed through Santa Anita during World War II, when it briefly served as temporary quarters for Japanese-Americans on their way to internment camps. But then Santa Anita's paddock alone is a museum of the novelistic ironies and revelations of the racing world.
Seabiscuit's statue is just one of several that occupy honored places in the paddock. Off to one side there's a life-size bronze of the great George Woolf, the jockey who rode Seabiscuit in his famous match race against War Admiral after Red Pollard had broken a leg. Santa Anita presents a George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award each year in honor of Woolf, so cool in the face of racing's split-second maneuvers and nerve-shredding hazards that he was nicknamed The Iceman. Woolf died tragically after falling headfirst onto Santa Anita's track from a horse called Please Me in what was probably a diabetic faint. Not far from his bronze is a bust of Joe Hernandez, the beloved track announcer who called Seabiscuit's races and thousands of others with a staccato clarity that set a standard for decades.
At the other end of the paddock are a group of three bronze statues of jockeys.One is John Longden, who worked miracles in the stretch at Santa Anita from the '40s to the '60s and, at 59, created an emotional red-letter day when he rode his very last race aboard the great but past-his-peak George Royal. Another is an effigy of Willie Shoemaker, now retired, who piloted Swaps, the "California Comet," to glory early in his career and did the same for other greats from the '50s right into the '80s. And then there's Laffit Pincay Jr., who's still on the track but has already been enshrined with his predecessors.
Not far from the constellation of jockeys is a bust of the late trainer Charlie Whittingham, who in more than 640 stakes wins in the 1960s-'80s set the record for money earned—a record that still holds.That Whittingham is regarded with greater affection by Santa Anita than dollars alone would explain is suggested by the presence, a few feet from his bust, of a bronze statue of his dog Toby. All great trainers are horse whisperers to a degree, but Whittingham seems to have whispered to all creatures great and small. Toby was one of his favorite nonhuman friends and is still renowned, by those at Santa Anita with longer memories, for having been taught by Charlie how to smile.
When the Santa Anita Handicap is run for the 65th time this month, another layer will be added to the track's lore. What has made the Big 'Cap great for so many years is that, unlike other top-stakes races, it is a handicap, which means added weights for the better horses. "You can carry a lot of weight for six furlongs and it's not that big a deal," says Denman, "but carrying it for a mile and a quarter against grade-one competition is tough. And that is what makes the Santa Anita Handicap special."
Last year's Big 'Cap was a crowd-pleasing display of grandeur in which the best horse won, paying off more in high emotion than in hard cash since he went off at even money. Tiznow, a dark beauty with a glamorous white blaze, had just a few months earlier won the prestigious Breeders' Cup Classic for his adoring owner, the octogenarian Cecilia Straub-Rubens, who'd come to watch him despite being gravely ill with cancer she would succumb to two days later. As a result, Tiznow was the sentimental favorite, as well as the responsible bet in a field of 12 that included the Baffert-trained Wooden Phone at six to one and at least one other serious contender, Bienamado, also at six to one.
Right out of the gate, the latter stumbled and almost threw his jockey, Alex Solis. "Beinamado went on his nose—he's last," Trevor Denman announced. Tiznow, ridden by Chris McCarron, had broken smoothly from the gate and now zipped up the track with Wooden Phone moving on the inside to take the lead. The 16-to-1 Irisheyesareflying was running a close third. At a quarter mile, where the first speed numbers come in, Wooden Phone was "setting a decent pace," reported Denman, "and Tiznow is in a perfect spot right there in second." Bienamado was way back. At the half mile Denman announced, "It's Wooden Phone. He's slowed them down now. Tiznow is breathing right down his neck. Beinamado's not doing anything." As they reached the end of the backstretch, Tiznow came even with Wooden Phone and moved to pull ahead as they came to the quarter pole. "Tiznow's on the outside," called Denman, his volume rising as the crowd in the grandstand started its collective bellow. "He's ab-so-lute-ly cantering!" Now rounding the turn to the head of the stretch, Tiznow was moving out, but he hadn't yet cut loose. "Chris McCarron is waiting, waiting. . . . now he pushes the button and Tiznow takes the lead in the Big 'Cap and goes for home!" Seeing Tiznow leap into warp speed at McCarron's signal, Denman knew right there who'd be first at the finish line. "It's Tiznow in full flight for the wire! And Tiznow has opened up three, four lengths, and here he comes, America's sensation!"
Chris McCarron, known as "the thinking man's rider," had given the wealth of talent beneath him a textbook ride and made the Santa Anita Handicap worthy of its purse.Referred to as the Hundred Grander when $100,000 was the biggest purse in the country (it has since risen to a cool million), the Big 'Cap was part of a strategy specifically engineered by Doc Strub right from the beginning to make Santa Anita special. The sustained quality of the race is one of the reasons that seismic changes in the world of Thoroughbred racing have not yet derailed Doc's vision. "Santa Anita has built up a reputation that can't be diminished now," says Denman. "It's the most majestic track in the United States. You can say 'Santa Anita' anywhere in the world, and people will show respect immediately—it'll be a great place forever."
Off to the Races
Santa Anita Park, which seats 26,000 in the grandstand and another 50,000 in the infield, is in Arcadia, just northeast of Los Angeles, near Pasadena. 285 West Huntington Drive; 626-574-7223.
• March 2: Santa Anita Handicap. If you see one race, see the Big 'Cap. $1 million purse. • April 6: Santa Anita Derby. A major prep race for the Triple Crown races, particularly the Kentucky Derby. $750,000. • April 21: San Juan Capistrano. At a mile and three quarters, the longest prestige turf race in the entire country, attracting the best grass horses in the world. $400,000.
Restaurants The FrontRunner in the clubhouse is the place to be, with first-rate food and a great view of the race: 626-574-1035.
Overnight Built at the turn of the century, the historic Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena is very grand and only 15 minutes from the track. 1401 South Oak Knoll; 626-568-3900.