By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
ON THE BACKSIDE OF SANTA ANITA -- THE STABLES WITH their pepper-tree-lined pathways, horses circling around and around on the tow rings in the deep dirt after workouts -- virtually nothing had changed. One late morning 10 days or so before the Oak Tree opening, two trainers, Don Ross and Ken Nettles, sat drinking coffee in the cafeteria -- known here as at every track in America as "the kitchen." The cashier had an Ana Gabriel CD on and the emotional ballads, recorded before an enthusiastic live audience in Mexico City, filled the air. A white cat with pink-rimmed eyes poked its head in the door, very cautiously contemplating the idea of coming inside.
I asked Ross and Nettles what they thought of the beginning of the frontside metamorphosis and got what amounted to a long, thoughtful shrug.
"I think," mused Ross, "he's doing a kind of Hearst Castle, you know. Really, in 50 years they'll look back and . . ."
"Nah," said Nettles.
In any case, neither thought it was especially threatening, at least so far.
"A restaurant is just a restaurant," Nettles said with a broad smile that exposed a missing canine tooth.
Years ago, Ross, who has the leathery, worn look of many racetrackers, had been a hard-trying jock on the California circuit. Once after a spill at Fresno he had been declared clinically dead. They couldn't find his heartbeat. Nettles has been on the track for 50 years and has survived as one of the few black trainers. Each has a small three- or four-horse stable, and this day Nettles was most concerned with getting a horse entered at Fairplex. (He did get in and he did win -- his second win of the year.) Both men, in other words, had seen it all and . . . seen it all again. Both shared a good-humored pessimism about the very survival of their game, quite apart from whatever the Stronachs of the business did or didn't do.
Like many I would talk to this morning, Ross had seen a new ad that millionaire jock Chris McCarron had done for one of the new at-home betting services.
"Did you see what Chris said on the tube?" Ross asked.
Nettles said he hadn't.
"He said the best place to make a bet is from your living-room couch. Why do you suppose he said that?"
And Nettles chuckled one of his deep-throated seen-it-all racetrack chuckles and said, "I bet someone wrote him a big check."
Ha. The point was, of course, that here was this big-time jock and racing spokesman peddling the notion that you needn't bother yourself about coming to the track. It was a little like a stage actor saying don't bother yourself about coming to the theater. Not that it was a new notion, this gradual fade from witnessing the event firsthand. (As it is now, only one of four dollars bet on the races is bet on-site, the rest at satellite facilities.)
"Well," said Nettles after some thought, "one thing for sure, they're gonna always need a horse. And somebody to take care of that horse."
Kicking this irreducible truth around for a bit, both of these veterans of the racing wars decided maybe that wasn't true. What, after all, about betting on "historical" races, run 20 or, for that matter, 50 years ago? What about those "fictional" races techno-wizards could create for computer games?
"If all they care about is the image, a number to bet on . . . ," said Ross.
Oh well. They laughed and shook their heads at the long-range hopelessness of it all. But it wasn't going to happen now, not today.
IT WAS ALSO TRUE THAT SANTA ANITA WAS NOT QUITE the virgin maid some imagined. There had already been a Santa Anita -- the original -- abandoned in the early part of this century when racing became illegal, like booze, for some years. (That Santa Anita became the Arcadia County Park.) And the new 1934 track had already lost a chunk of itself in 1972 when 70 acres (including a training track and a big piece of the stables) were lopped off to accommodate a new shopping mall next door. A recurring theme on the backside these days concerning Stronach's big ideas was the "at least" factor: "At least" he's a horseman who believes in racing. "At least" he's not bulldozing the whole place for condos, as others interested in the property might have done. "At least" he is firmly on record against the slot machines that have invaded many of the tracks in the East ("They decrease society's intellect," he has said) and is philosophically uncomfortable with the drift toward simulcasting.
And no one was really sure what Stronach would do. He was, after all, known for throwing multischemes up in the air like confetti and then following through on only the ones that were best received. (He has already backed off on tearing out the grass course and paddock garden.) Meanwhile, that new Mega Vision screen ("the thing in the infield," as some called it, so Hollywood Park, so not Santa Anita) had turned out to be quite popular and much less intrusive than had been feared, blocking only a small patch of the backstretch behind it while showing a close-up of the race in progress -- outside, at least, away from the sunless monitors inside.
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