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Give your sport a good public image from the beginning and then work as hard as you know how to improve the image every year, or else you are wasting your time. This was the attitude that a San Francisco dentist named Charles Strub brought with him when he came down the Coast some 30 years ago and built Santa Anita racetrack on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Financiers warned him of bankruptcy, horsemen advised it would be a quick flop and his 16-year-old son might well have sat down to plan a career in dentistry. But Dr. Strub was a man of vision. He was sure, financiers be damned, that Los Angeles was going to grow, and he was positive, horsemen be damned, that he knew a lot about the likes and dislikes of sports fans. He had learned about them while running San Francisco's baseball team, the Seals, and he felt if you could make money with a baseball team in a fog you ought to be able to make it with a racetrack in the sun.
Dr. Strub was right—as usual. He built his track in a beautiful setting that used the majestic San Gabriel mountain range as a backdrop, he lured class racing to the West and, by the time he died in 1958, Santa Anita was a superb success. Last week the dentist's racetrack—now under the management of son Bob—began another season, and never had its auspices been more promising. A crowd of 70,023 turned up for opening day, and at the end of the first week attendance was up 6.4% over last year and the mutuel handle was up 2.5%.
Even on New Year's Day, with a counterattraction called the Rose Bowl drawing 100,423 people just 10 miles down the road, 37,203 were at Santa Anita and, in its image-conscious fashion, the track gave its faithful something extra. An old home-town favorite. Candy Spots, trying a comeback after being away from the races with leg trouble for more than a year, turned in a sensational winning performance. The following day 50,366 saw another local hero, Hill Rise, meet a noted eastern invader, Roman Brother, in a smallish event, the $25,000 added Malibu Stakes. It did not really matter that the race was won by a 16-to-1 shot, Power of Destiny, since it provided such a close finish among the 10 starters that Nearco Blue, the seventh horse to reach the wire, was beaten by only a length and a half. Hill Rise, incidentally, was a fast-closing third, while Roman Brother was last, though just six lengths behind the leader.
The most memorable opening week in Santa Anita history might be explained by saying that larger crowds are inevitable when a major spectator sport is staged in an area where the population growth is so fantastic. This may be, but a more realistic way to describe the upswing would be to state unhesitatingly that under Bob Strub and his able aides Santa Anita has become the best-managed racetrack in America. It is a pleasure for horsemen to race there, and an even greater pleasure for fans to go to the races there.
Jimmy Kilroe, Santa Anita's racing director and a man long recognized as the leading racing secretary and handicapper in the country, says, "Our success has a logical base. The program, with its 11 weeks of racing and ample opportunities for every type of top horse, gets the horses here. The horses get the jockeys, and the jockeys bring out the people."
That is exactly how things have developed this winter at Santa Anita. In Gun Bow, the early favorite for the Santa Anita Handicap, and now maybe Candy Spots, the track could have the two best handicap horses in the country. Certainly, Gun Bow is the best since the retirement of Kelso. Included among the 1,550 horses on the grounds are about 200 from the East, and all of them are good enough to win either an allowance or a stakes race. The jockeys now at Santa Anita are the best colony of riders ever assembled at one track—Bill Shoemaker, Manuel Ycaza, Milo Valenzuela, Johnny Longden and, for the first time, Bill Hartack, along with such California regulars as Ray York, Ken Church and Rudy Campas and those highly competent craftsmen: Don Pierce, Henry Moreno and Willie Harmatz. Another, Wally Blum, who was the leading winner in 1963 and 1964, was injured during the first week.
"What it boils down to," says Kilroe, "is that we have attracted the finest horses from all over the country because we offer good purses and horsemen know that if they ship in with the right kind of horses to fit the program they'll all have a chance to run."
Another element in Santa Anita's success is pointed out by General Manager Fred Ryan. The track built the proper public-relations image years ago, and so, says Ryan, "we benefit from the best press in the country. Even before we opened this season they were writing story after story about the horses and jocks coming in." Publicity Director Dick Nash has a crew of 10 men and two secretaries working the 55-day meeting, dishing out press releases and features on a daily production line that would do justice to the White House. The Los Angeles Times has two men full time at the track, and on big days sends out a photographer or two as well as a reporter for the society or fashion page. For the February 27 Santa Anita Handicap the Times will use eight staffers on the beat.
Amid all the rosy atmosphere surrounding Los Angeles racing there is little to complain about, but one point does come up on occasion. It has been said that western racing is the roughest in the country and that the officiating quite frankly leaves a good deal to be desired.
Two years ago, when his Candy Spots hurdled fallen animals to win the Santa Anita Derby after a four-horse pile-up. Owner Rex Ellsworth charged that riders were getting away with murder at Santa Anita. Ellsworth found allies in many of the jockeys themselves, and in the trainers, too. One of the latter remarked last week: "The jocks claim that the stewards aren't consistent here, that one boy will get days for a foul and another boy doing the same thing isn't even called in. I say they have always been consistent in one way: Ralph Neves, for I-don't-know-how-many years, was allowed to shut off every horse in the race, and Johnny Longden, who is the world's greatest artist at herding horses anywhere he wants to herd them, never got what was coming to him in the way of suspensions." (Neves holds the record for career suspensions but was grounded only 126 days in 25 years at Santa Anita.)