By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by TL Ary It is three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and 105° and the air so thick with smog that the dusty palm trees loom up with a sudden and rather attractive mystery. I have been playing in the sprinklers with the baby and I get in the car and go to Ralph’s Market on the corner of Sunset and Fuller wearing an old bikini bathing suit. —Joan Didion, L.A.-based writer, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Mention summer in Southern California, and beaches, brews, and scantily clad men and women come to mind. It is also the time for America’s No. 5 sport — horseracing. Enthusiasts won’t ever forget the summer of ’78, when Affirmed became the first Santa Anita Derby winner to sweep the Triple Crown, beating Alydar by a nose in three of the greatest moments in racing history. Or when Cigar, who tied Citation’s record of 16 consecutive victories, lost what would have been his 17th straight victory in 1996 at the Pacific Classic at Del Mar before a record crowd of 44,181. Recently, Santa Anita–based Charismatic stunned the world with a win at this year’s Kentucky Derby (he was a 31-1 shot) and at the Preak-ness, garnering a total of $1,536,200.
As with most sports, money makes the horseracing world go round. Wagering was banned in California in 1909, but was brought back in 1933 after the "crash." "I think the Depression caused people to re-examine possible revenue sources," says John Reagan, senior pari-mutuel auditor with the California Horseracing Board. "It was a new way to get the economy kick-started again." Betting was sanctioned at Fairplex Park that same year. The following year, Santa Anita Park, owned by San Francisco dentist Charles Henry "Doc" Strub, opened its doors on Christmas Day to 30,777 fans as well as scores of celebrities, including Al Jolson, Clark Gable and Will Rogers. Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, located a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, would do the same in 1937. Jack L. Warner, of Warner Bros. fame, and numerous movie moguls would unlock the gates at Inglewood’s Hollywood Park in 1938. Los Alamitos Race Course, the last track to permit betting, would become the nation’s most successful quarter-horse track 13 years later.
But the sport’s luster began to fade in the ’40s, when the war effort closed down the tracks. Santa Anita briefly housed thousands of Japanese-Americans, who were detained in horse stalls and the parking lot for several months until desert internment camps were built. After the war, the sport was revitalized because of economic expansion in California. The ’70s marked a boom in popularity thanks in part to star attractions such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. But in the ’80s and early ’90s, enthusiasm for horse-racing plummeted. Some believe that shrinking national interest was the problem, while others blamed competition from hockey, football, basketball, casinos and lotteries. "Our heyday was in the early and late ’70s," says Jeff True, director of marketing for Los Alamitos Race Course. "In the early ’90s there were lotteries in more than 20 states, and Indian and riverboat gaming. We just didn’t have the monopoly on wagering anymore."
Doping also became an issue, but according to True, there is no other sport today that is more regulated than horse-racing. "The technological advances in human medicine have taken hold in horse-racing," he says. "Every horse that wins, as well as two other random horses in a race in California, must submit to a drug test."â
Others close to racing circles opine that a lack of government support caused some parks to close across the country, but a recent Senate tax-relief bill could change that. In 1998, Senator Ken Maddy put forth legislation (Senate Bill 27) that would reduce the tax rate at major tracks to approximately 1.75 percent from 5 percent. "It will make potential buyers more interested in owning horses, because more money can be made on a race-to-race basis, and in turn, more money can go back into track operations. There will be bigger purses, more horses and more choices oddswise," says Chris Esslinger, public relations manager for Santa Anita Park. Another boost came the same year with the formation of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), whose main job is to heighten awareness and promote the sport. Today, with the help of the NTRA and government leniency, horseracing is back in the saddle again in Southern California. "Horseracing is a $25 billion nationwide business, which makes it larger than the TV and the film industry," says True. "It’s very labor-intensive, and the government recognizes that it is a big employer."Hollywood Park
Hollywood Park’s colorful 61-year history has included a 1951 fire that almost destroyed horseracing in Inglewood forever, when the grandstand and clubhouse became an inferno a quarter of a mile long. Equally dramatic moments came with the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup, when Citation, one of racing history’s greatest thoroughbreds, became horseracing’s first million-dollar earner when he won the classic. At the age of 6, Hollywood’s Native Diver would become the first California-bred thoroughbred to earn $1 million when he won his last of three Gold Cup victories in 1967 before a crowd of 51,664. You can see a memorial statue of Native Diver (who died of intestinal problems shortly after winning a race at Del Mar a few months later) from the stands, while his body rests on the hill overlooking the park. Jockeys have also had their fair share of triumphs. William "The Shoe" Shoemaker, who won 280 stakes at Hollywood, and the Gold Cup a record eight times, retired from racing in 1990, having ridden 2,416 of his record 8,833 winners at Hollywood Park.