The Wednesday feature race at Santa Anita was the $45,450 El Encino Stakes for 4-year-old fillies that had never won at a distance of a mile or beyond for a purse of $15,000. Eleven runners stepped into the starting gate ready to go 1[1/16] miles or, as the program didactically noted, "about 1,700 meters." The past performances showed that five of them were bred in California, three in Kentucky and one in Florida; the two others were from England and Argentina.
The crowd of 20,133 made the Argentine filly, Lucie Manet, the 6-5 favorite while allowing the English entrant, Woodsome, to drift out to 19-1. Woodsome, however, beat Lucie by nearly four lengths to become one of the early favorites for the $100,000 La Ca�ada Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 13. The Argentines got even in the next day's feature when Star Ball beat Vagabonda, a horse that had been campaigned in Europe until last year. Things like that have been happening at Santa Anita lately.
Since opening its 40th season on Dec. 28, the track has taken on a distinctly foreign tinge. Through last Saturday, of the races carrying purses of $20,000 or more, horses either bred or campaigned abroad had won a third. California horseplayers barely had their chairs dusted off for the start of the new season when three "foreign" horses won on opening day, and on the afternoon that Woodsome took the El Encino, two other imports were also winners.
Early nominees for the Charles H. Strub Stakes on Feb. 6, the first $100,000 race of 1977, include a dozen foreign-bred runners. And as Santa Anita moves toward its April 10 closing, more and more outstanding foreign horses will be invading the track that bills itself as " America's Great Race Place."
What is happening at Santa Anita has been evolving for the past few years and is one of the most striking developments in thoroughbred racing in this country in decades. It is certain to change the thinking of those fans who have felt that imported horses couldn't outrun a feed bill. Nothing used to drive a horseplayer insane faster than a set of past performances from tracks named Ayr ( Scotland), Haydock Park ( England), Hipico de Santiago (Chile), Monterrico ( Peru), Evry ( France), The Curragh ( Ireland) or Palermo ( South America). Californians now face that problem every day.
"Of the 11 top horses on the grounds," says Santa Anita's racing vice-president, Jimmy Kilroe, "six were either bred abroad or raced there. And that's just among the males. When you look at the fillies and mares in the highest classifications, half of the top ones have foreign backgrounds. I would say conservatively that at least one quarter of the good horses we have on the grounds have similar patterns in that they were either raced abroad after having been bred in the United States or were bred abroad and purchased to bring to this country to race. The impact will become even more evident now that our rainy season seems to have passed and we can schedule more races on the grass, which is the surface many foreign horses prefer. The whole trend should be for the overall good of U.S. racing. More stars should develop because of these horses being brought here. And we do need stars."
Kilroe is quick to notice racing's trends as well as its problems, and when he says the invaders are good, they are at least all of that; this season horses from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Ireland, England and France have won at Santa Anita.
The kind of star Kilroe hopes for may turn out to be a 3-year-old colt from England named J. O. Tobin.
Two weeks ago, on a near-perfect California afternoon, a blue-and-white van marked CALIFORNIA TURF EXPRESS pulled up in front of Barn 5 in Santa Anita's stable area. Johnny Adams, a Hall of Fame jockey who rode for 24 years before turning his hand to training, watched the unloading process intently. "All morning long I been as anxious as a hen sitting on her nest," he said. "I been waiting for this horse to arrive from the farm up north. This horse is something special."
As Adams spoke, a black, leggy colt walked down a ramp and began digging up puffs of sand with his hooves. This was J. O. Tobin. Tobin last year won all three of his starts in England and is considered one of the best young runners in the world. But instead of going for the Epsom Derby in England he will now be prepared at Santa Anita for the Kentucky Derby.