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The 'At Least' Factor

Photo by Ted SoquiWell, the hell with it. Frank Stronach, the Austro-Canadian philosopher mogul (think Ted Turner with a lot more imagination) whose Ontario-based auto-parts manufacturing company, Magna International, now had 50,000 employees in 16 countries, was moving too fast to bother about six-story codpieces, and the giant was scrapped. Stronach was all over the map, starting restaurants and magazines, backing a now-defunct four-wheel-drive sports car (the Torrero), running for the Canadian Parliament (he lost), starting up his own airline (Magna Air, with individual bedrooms for tired businessmen, still in the planning stage). And while all this was going on, he still had time to pour money into his two favorite sporting activities -- Austrian soccer and international horseracing. With some 800 head he keeps on 4,000 Kentucky acres, Stronach may own more thoroughbreds than anyone. (He's won some big races, but not enough of them. Says Cliff Hopmans, one of Stronach's many ex-trainers: "When he first started talking to me, he sits me down and he says, 'I want to win the Queen's Plate, the Kentucky Derby and all the Breeders' Cup races.' He had no other goal than to become the biggest and the best.")

Born Franz Strohsack, the son of an ardent communist, the future capitalist superstar had by the age of 66 managed to reinvent himself many times over, and this was what he liked to do with new acquisitions, among them, one of several racetracks he has recently bought, SoCal's very own Santa Anita, "The Great Race Place," "A Million Flowers and a Racetrack," all 300 acres of it snoozing peacefully in the city of Arcadia at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Suddenly big Frank had come to town, and suddenly a typically Stronachian transformational scheme was on the boards. Soon enough, as many saw it, Santa Anita would play the virginal maiden and the Mighty Stronach the despotic barbarian who, much like an ambulatory version of his abandoned colossus, had arrived bashing and pillaging and preparing to commit a kind of corporate rape. Straightaway he had axed the seven top Santa Anita executives, replacing them with counterparts from the minor-league Turf Paradise in Phoenix. He then announced his plans to reconstitute Santa Anita as a vast horse-themed entertainment complex, a "palace for thoroughbreds" that would not look out of place on Vegas' Flamingo Boulevard, complete with a hotel, a new restaurant, a racing museum, an IMAX theater, a gated residential community in the northern parking lot, a Western street along the lines of Universal's CityWalk, and a 40-by-53-foot Mega Vision screen in the infield on which to watch races in progress. Most blasphemous of all, Stronach wanted to rip up the hillside grass course and scrap the paddock gardens -- the very things that made Santa Anita Santa Anita.

None of this would happen overnight, it would be done in increments, yet the idea of someone, anyone -- not to mention this auto-parts manufacturer from Ontario -- dismantling beloved Santa Anita, which had so gamely survived in its own time zone for so long, virtually unchanged since its 1934 opening . . . well, this provoked a predictably angry response from many. Leading the chorus was the L.A. Conservancy, an organization dedicated to saving what can be saved of SoCal's architectural soul. Santa Anita, said spokesman Ken Bernstein, "is one of the most beautiful and historical racetracks in the world, an Art Deco jewel." (Its architect, Gordon Kaufmann, has such diverse and time-defying structures to his credit as the Times Mirror building and the Hoover Dam.) "Our goal," Bernstein said, "is not to freeze in place some moment in the past. We realize Santa Anita has to evolve, to reinvigorate the sport and to appeal to a new audience. But things can be done as change happens to keep the ambiance of the original. Allowing modifications, we want to keep what is most characteristic of the site."

The first phase of Magna International's plans for the new acquisition, rushed through in time for the Oak Tree meet September 29, was to involve only "modest interior work," Bernstein was told when he met with the new management. Conservancy members were then shocked to see two massive elevator towers rise in back of the grandstand. "The façade was punctured," said Bernstein (he might have said "penetrated"). "We were hoodwinked." Magna had gone back to the Arcadia Planning Council with new ideas after work had begun, claimed Bernstein. A Santa Anita spokesman denied this. "We are in full compliance with the city of Arcadia," said Stuart Zanville, not quite addressing the hoodwinkery, though he did add that Magna has hired a consultant with preservationist credentials, suggested by the Conservancy.

Phase One, as it played out, included a new restaurant (completed but not to open until the track's official meet, the day after Christmas), some work on the apron in front of the grandstand (benches and vast Grecian planters), the elevators, changes in the Turf Club and Clubhouse areas, and the big infield screen. Subsequently relations between the Conservancy and Magna have improved, but Bernstein still worries about Phase Two, which, as he said, is "the real threat." The question, of course, is to what and to whom?

 

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.

As for myself, I had in the past written emotional defenses of the status quo at Santa Anita, but didn't feel that way now. The continuing existence of so rich and anachronistic and always quite fragile a little world seemed remarkable to me on any terms, and emotional attachments to here-today-gone-tomorrow sport franchises and their venues (stadiums, ballparks or racetracks) seemed a little nutty.

Back in 1972, when Santa Anita's imminent demise was first predicted (it had just lost that 70-acre chunk and the rest was just a matter of time, many felt), I went to talk to all-time champ jock (then and now) Bill Shoemaker, who'd won 1,500 of his then 6,300 lifetime wins at Santa Anita. Would he care if they razed the place and turned the whole thing into a shopping center? "Not really," he said. "The dates would just go to Hollywood Park, which would be better for me really. It's closer to where I live."

The interview was not going as I had hoped. We were talking in the jocks' room just in back of the saddling paddock, and Shoemaker was having his hair shampooed. "What I am getting at," I persisted, sweating a little, "is whether or not you would be sentimental about a place where you've spent so much of your life."

"I'm not sentimental about much of anything," said the world's wealthiest 105-pound man.

It was, as it happens, just a year after the lovely old ramshackle Caliente grandstand in Tijuana burned down. I happened to be there that day, pursuing my fledgling career as a jockey's agent, and stood with the horsemen on the backside watching the track collapse into smoking rubble over a long hot summer's morning. By 11, the fire was out and almost everybody there had made their plans, where to go with their horses, how to keep on going on.

One old guy on horseback, as he watched the fire across the infield, allowed as how he'd seen the first Caliente burn in 1927, and another old-timer responded memorably: "Yeah, and I bet you've seen Christ on the cross and come in second in the Kentucky Derby."

Everybody laughed.

THE MAN THOUGHT . . . BIG. HE HAD STARTED WITH AN IMMIGRANT'S BAG OF NOTHING, AND NOW HAD a lot of money and power and more terrific ideas than he had time to implement them. One of these inspirations was to build a great figure of a man, some 60 stories tall. This naked colossus, a monument to man the creator, would stand in the middle of another of his visionary schemes -- the World of Wonders amusement park outside Vienna, in his home country of Austria. But then the spoilsport pygmies, the worriers who so often shoot down truly revolutionary ideas, pointed out that this monster would require some sort of cover, a kind of codpiece for his mighty . . . manhood, which would dangle six stories all by itself.


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