Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Santa Anita Trip Notes

March 17-20 2011

Saw one of my Starbucks regulars in the departure lounge for Virgin America Thursday morning. Virgin America is no great shakes of an airline, especially in Coach. Can’t see what all the fuss is about. I followed the website directions from LAX to the park. Someone made a nice choice to have folks get off on Orange Grove in Pasadena. This is the kind of street where you can find yourself stuck behind a van with the sign “Architectural Tours of Los Angeles by an Architectural Historian.”  Sets a very posh tone.

I had made prior arrangements with Mike Willman and Debbie Olsen of the Publicity Department for a media credential. The helpful guy at the gate directed me to park by an orange tree. None of those where I come from. Bird of paradise flowers in the parking lot. Not a lot of those blooming in March back home either. The big fountain by the statue of Seabiscuit was flowing green for St. Patrick’s Day. Not exactly like dyeing the Chicago River for the day, but a kind of cheesy reminder I was at the racetrack, not the Norton-Simon Museum.

Now this is a real racetrack. When I got inside I found the elevator to the press box. This was manned by a charming guy who did not want to admit he drew the short straw  and got stuck working in a little box all day with the beauty of California right outside. Are the last elevator operators in the world working the press box elevators at racetracks? Maybe the White House.

Mike Willman was busy and distracted, but Debbie Olsen was charming in providing the credential and inviting me to make myself at home. In my limited experience, this is a first-class operation. They had hot food in the press box!! Sat in Jay Hovdey’s seat. There were actual working press guys there - talking about the NCAA Men’s. Best ever.

My impression throughout was that the crowd was surprisingly bland. Not as “cowboy” as I would have thought. Not very Mexican either Maybe it is because it was a Thursday. My companion suggests that those folks have to work for a living. Later it seems all of this area is like that. Hollywood and San Diego, too. Maybe I just can’t get off by myself enough, but the whole region seems bleached out, corporate, branded. I haven’t been back for almost 25 years and my existence when I lived here more than thirty years ago was pretty marginal. Maybe more marginal than I ever realized.

One nice touch is the South African (Thanks Ron Z.) track announcer, Trevor Denman, with his very plummy accent. An off note is the use of the word “hornblower” to describe the guy who plays the call to the post. It just sounds weird. The only references I can find for this usage are at here at Santa Anita and in cites for the Marx Brothers movie, “A Day at the Races” (1937). Saratoga, Woodbine, even the races at the Northern California fairs call him the “bugler.”

What began as a cool and foggy day brightens. It seems like I can see the race along the backstretch extraordinarily well. My companion says it may be the cool green of the mountain backdrop.  Make a note to check with my long-suffering and ever more beautiful artist wife when I get home.

Lost $5, despite cashing 4 tickets.

The Workouts
Mike Willman had said that if I wanted to see the morning workouts I should get out by 7 a.m. Drove by a bar in Arcadia called “The Drinker’s Hall of Fame.” Serious question about what I would have done if I had seen that sign last night on St. Patrick’s Day. The only thing I remember about my last St.Patrick’s day in LA was running out of gas on the way home.

Arrived at 6:45 in darkness to find the workouts in full swing. Sun just about to come up. It smelled like horse shit. I took this as a very good sign. The workouts are advertised and  are open to the public for free. I actually saw a clocker with a stopwatch as I walked over. Again, this is the real deal.

The workouts are big. They have a coffee shop with hot meals, waiters in bow ties, guys drying the dew off the seats, freestanding gas heaters (ubiquitous now in Southern California apparently). Could have had breakfast there instead of wasting my time eating at Denny’s. Got a cup of coffee and sat down to watch the action. They have two tracks working simultaneously – the main dirt track and an inner training loop inside the turf course. This appears to have a different surface – grey in color as opposed to the sandy brown of the main track.

The sun JUMPS up over the San Gabriel mountains over by the first turn. Some minor excitement over a loose horse. A small crowd of professionals and gawkers. A family on vacation from Boston, some older folks. I am NOT the only guy there wearing a suit and tie. The ubiquitous Bob Baffert. The sun begins to warm the air and a waiter offers to warm up my coffee. I wonder, “Is this the best breakfast I ever had?” Ranks right up there anyway.

Hazy blue sky, folded hills with some steep declivities. A small residential community appears perched on the lower slopes. Wonder if they can see in? My old firm once rented an apartment in Chicago with an obstructed view of Soldiers Field, but I never stayed the weekend to see the Bears play. Maybe it is like the folks in Chicago who rent their rooftops to folks to watch the Cubs.

Still way less cowboy and less Mexican than I could have imagined, even with a high percentage of professionals. Several people with dogs. Do dogs act cool around horses?

Things stop for reconditioning the track surfaces. When workouts resume, there are far fewer horses out. Earlier there was a pleasant blur of activity. There is no way for a novice like me to know what is really happening, not even which horse is which.

The Races
I meet a guy at the paddock who declares it to be his lucky day. It is his name day – Sandor from Hungary. Seems pleased to meet someone who knows not only that yesterday was St. Patrick’s, but that tomorrow is St. Joseph’s.

I wander around this BIG plant and discover the basement. On a sunny day in March in California, the basement of a race track is for true degenerates, but like the rest of the place it is clean and neat and the crowd looks respectable. Pitiable, but respectable. Part of the interior of the grandstand is cordoned off for a blood drive and in another part (I told you it was big.) there are signs announcing that a TV show (The HBO drama "Luck.") is being filmed and that we have all consented to the use of our likenesses. I scram before they find out I am 32 years in arrears on my AFTRA dues.

Just out of the gate for Race 1

 Gilligan, with Joe Talamo up wins Race 1

Chantal Sutherland up on PowerofVoodoo before Race 2

The break in Race 2

Living Our Dream with Rafael Bejarano up wins Race 2

There are a couple of fancy horse and carriage rigs ferrying folks around the main track between races. Again that Old Pasadena/Tournament of Roses feel. I thoroughly enjoy the day, especially the sunshine.

 Star Billing in the walking ring. The winner of Race 3. 

Lord Avalon with jockey Martin Garcia wins Race 4

Even with no distractions, I manage to lose $10.

Back after a short trip to San Diego to air out the Old School Tie. Got a very late start and felt a little bad because I had a loose agreement to meet an “internaute” (as the French would say) friend at the track. A little cool and cloudy down south, more moisture as I hit Pomona, teeming when I get to Arcadia. 

I found my contact and we watched some horses in the saddling paddock and one race from the clubhouse walkway. We both had some things to do and different ways to do them so I watched the last two races on my own from the doorway of the grandstand. There were, surprisingly, some folks actually in the infield in the pouring rain. All in all a very sparse crowd and very quiet.

On a recommendation from a website I am starting to follow, I bet a longshot for $2 across the board and the $22.20 Show payout got me even for the weekend. Pretty good time to zip up the wallet and go to dinner.