At Belmont Park last week winter wind rattled down the backstretch and the far turn was a furrow of cold mud. At Jamaica the paddock stood silent and empty. At other tracks in other places, tufts of ghostly snow or the fierce howlings of blue northers spun across finish lines.
But out in Arcadia, Calif. a warm sun dappled down on a million pansy blossoms and a crowd of 30,000 felt a pleasurable shiver of anticipation as a gaudy gentleman in the scarlet greatcoat and furry top hat of a Dickensian outrider strode to the center of the harrowed track and raised his long-stemmed bugle to his lips. It was the call to the colors for the start of the 18th annual Santa Anita Park racing season. A moment later a dozen sleek, shiny thoroughbreds, their jockeys' silks glistening in the sunlight, burst onto the track and minced toward the starting line. To the racegoer, it was the prettiest sight in the world.
Even by California's standards, Santa Anita Park is an extravagance of beauty. It boasts beyond question the finest backdrop in American racing—the majestic Sierra Madre mountain range which looks over the backstretch, sometimes escarped in snow. Lordly Washington palms, Carolina cherry hedges, rustling pepper trees and hillocks full of blooming calendulas dot an infield which boasts the greenest grass in Southern California thanks to a heavy planting of fescue. Even the walking paths are covered with a rust-colored red shale from which the oil has been expensively extracted. At Santa Anita, even nature is often not quite good enough.
Santa Anita Park is as successful as it is beautiful. Twenty years ago when Santa Anita first opened its doors (on Christmas Day in 1934) after Movie Producer Hal Roach and a bunch of his polo-playing pals had barely rounded up the money ($1 million), there were more skeptics than believers. A local bank lent the track enough money to cover wagers but it wanted the money back by nightfall and sent along a crew of armed guards to make sure. "Hell, if you build a track in downtown L.A., these hicks'll step around it," the promoters were warned.
HANDLE: $2 MILLION A DAY
What happened, of course, was that the hicks stepped some 14 miles to the east to get at the track and in such numbers as racing had never seen before. In one single season (1945-'46), a daily average of $2,557,937 was bet. Daily attendance (1946-'47) averaged an incredible 35,247. One day (Handicap Day in 1947), so many people showed up (85,500) that a crisis was created (the plumbing caved in under the strain) and the card almost had to be canceled. Last year 27,166 persons a day showed up and bet a total of $96,899,527, almost $2 million a day.
The man responsible for this fairyland success of the track is a tall, rheumy-eyed, former dentist from San Francisco named Charles H. Strub. The 70-year-old Strub, a onetime minor league second baseman, is a rare promoter who combines the sentimentality of the bleacher fan with the hard-headedness of a coin-biter in a counting house. If he has spent millions in institutional advertising to convince the public Santa Anita is a public trust whose revenue does much to support agricultural colleges and county fairs, he also spends millions at the legitimate improvement of the breed. Two years ago, for example, he installed a picturesque grass course when there was scarcely any public clamor for it.
In the days when Strub had spent the entire million dollars raised by stock issue to buy the 401 acres of Santa Anita Rancho and was in hock another $300,000 to build his mezzanine, he posted the first $400,000 stake. It was like pulling all the blue chips out of the poker pot to bet on the last card. But it paid off.
In Southern California the Sport of Kings has become the sport of orange pickers and not even the clubhouse is the private preserve of the mink stole and jeweled lorgnette.
FLAIR FOR ELEGANCE SHOWN