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Going from the last day of racing at New York to the first of the 75-day meet at California's Santa Anita provided a number of contrasts. On Dec. 10 at Aqueduct the thermometer shuddered between 9° and 15° and most of the 25,112 fans, desperate for hibernation money, were forced by the cold to watch the races on closed-circuit television, shouting from in front of the cashiers' windows as if they were down on the rail. In the bedlam it was hard to tell whether or not your horse had won until the numbers went up, after which there was a surge to the windows and a funeral march to the bars.
At Santa Anita on Dec. 26 the skies cleared to a brilliant blue after heavy rains on Christmas Day. The temperature hovered between 49° and 57°, which Southern Californians consider close to frigid but I enjoyed. The 33,552 fans, beaming with fresh money, passed quickly into the grandstand, infield and clubhouse areas, which were newly decorated with paint and flowers. It was one of the lowest first-day attendances since 1934, when the Duchess of Arcadia opened its gates. The drop was attributed to the rains, the Hong Kong flu (which has hit one in every four persons in the Los Angeles area) and to the fact it was Thursday, a midweek working day.
I had Christmas dinner in the Santa Anita stable area, in the large track kitchen where more than 800 grooms, exercise boys and other stable hands with their wives and children were served the regulation turkey with stuffing, yams and peas and cranberry sauce. Each of us got a king-sized navel orange and an equally large very red apple. The dripping rain dampened spirits somewhat, and there was no hilarity in the block-long room and adjoining recreation hall, but a lot of quiet munching. Even the children were subdued; there was a small, glittering tree in a corner.
I spent a wet Christmas night in conversation at the Flamingo Bar, just outside one of the track entrances, with a man from Connecticut in his early 30s who had come to California 10 years ago to escape the cold and was at the moment warming his hands over a martini. At night he is a bartender not far from the track; by day he is a poker and horse player. He told me he is solvent but not rich, because he cannot bring himself to bet $200 on 3-to-5 favorites. He will try to get to the track every one of the 75 days of the meet. His ambition is to attend the hotel and restaurant school in Lucerne, Switzerland on his GI Bill of Rights allowance and come back and open a place of his own. Meanwhile he strives for capital at the races and card tables. When we parted before midnight we agreed to look for each other in the racing haystack next day and exchange tips.
The haystack was smaller than the track people had hoped for, but I and my new friend and fellow addict never joined needles. The opening-day crowd was a mixture of fancy and plebeian, with the plebeian dominating. That is what Santa Anita would like to see throughout the season, because it is trying to change its supposedly snooty image. This year the track has enlarged the picnic grounds in the infield where a mariachi band plays catchy music; built a playpen for the kiddies, whom the law high-handedly prevents from betting; and hired a bevy of Santa Anita Señoritas, who are not topless. I talked to a pretty one freezing in the infield kiosk. She used to play baseball, loves to watch football on television and, though born and bred in Arcadia, did not go racing until she was paid to do so. Sensing an amateur, patrons asked her silly questions which she answered very seriously. It was too chilly for picnics, but I almost tripped over a couple of empty pint rye whiskey bottles.
Because of the heavy track there were plenty of overnight scratches, but the nine races were of quality and well run, and announced by Joe (Old Man River) Hernandez, who has called every race since Santa Anita opened. He was tallying his 13,609th consecutive call when Better News won the first race. I had $10 on Better News, and I regret to say that the wizened, middle-aged wit behind the cashier's window said as he passed out $60, "What could be better news?"
I did well for a New York street Arab accustomed to arid Aqueduct; set down amidst the flowers and brownish-purple backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountain range, I won five of the nine races for a net profit of $252. The track press book proudly proclaimed that this year the gardeners had transplanted 800,000 "Santa Anita super jumbo pansies...bright yellow in tone, supplemented with blossoms of blue." I sniffed at a few pansies but preferred the Santa Anita Señorita.
The feature race, the $25,000-added Palos Verdes Handicap for all ages, furnished an exciting stretch duel when Rising Market, ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr., popularly called "The Pirate," stole the event from the Eastern horse, Tumiga, in the last couple of strides and paid $7.40. Not entirely by coincidence, this was the third consecutive opening day that Rising Market with Pincay had won a race at Santa Anita.
Next day, Friday, the weather was warmer; the mountains were less spectacular but the long shots more so. In every race from the second through the sixth, horses paying from $15 to $27 won, and my capital dwindled.
I visited my Santa Anita Señorita in the infield and she addressed me by name. In the course of our chat it turned out that she was separated after three years of marriage and had two tiny children. Having once married a girl with children, I politely abandoned this one for the combination window and on my rapid way back stumbled on the impersonal tots sliding into the sand from a stone sea lion. There were more children at Santa Anita than I have ever seen at a racetrack, even in France.