Oct 16th 2008 12:00 pm |
In a few days, the West Coast will play host to the first of two straight Breeders Cups. Being an East Coaster with an admitted bias, I thought I would try something new for this space in honor of the BC in LA: Do a little California racing history. What better place to start then Santa Anita Park – site for the Breeders Cup in 2008 and 2009.
Image: Full page advertisement from the Los Angeles Herald, December 22, 1907
The first Santa Anita was built on the immense “Rancho Santa Anita” owned by E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who was described in 1909 as a “pioneer, soldier of fortune, and owner of horses”. The original Santa Anita opened on December 7, 1907. Baldwin, whose life story stands as a classic rags to riches tale, “owned, controlled, and dictated” over Arcadia, the area that included parts of his ranch and his racetrack. According to his obituary, Santa Anita Park was the last of Baldwin’s dreams to be realized. However, in a lifetime of success the track also brought Baldwin his final heartbreak.
In February 1909, during the track’s second and what would be its final racing season, the Walker-Otis bill passed and outlawed “pool selling” in California, making it impossible for bookmakers to ply their trade. The end of racing in California soon followed, killed by the wave of “moralism” spreading across the country during the period. Lucky Baldwin died at his ranch less than a month after the anti-gambling bill became law.
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
While Baldwin’s track lasted only two seasons, it made its mark on the history of racing and established a foundation for the current California racing scene. Here is how the Los Angeles Herald described a visit to the first Santa Anita Park on December 5, 1907:
“With the weights for the opening feature announced this morning and with the cup race poundage due today things begin to assume definite shape, and the lovers of turf events are reminded that but two days intervene until the bugles music again draws them out to watch the horses speed around the oval. Opening day, while it may lack a completed grandstand and paddock will in almost every other particular be as near perfect as possible, and Santa Anita park is sure to please all but the dyspeptics.
“The track is certain to be productive of fast time, and its mile and an eighth oval will provide a fitting ground for the hoofs of some of the best thoroughbreds ever seen on a Western track. The entries in the Pomona handicap alone show what can be expected this winter, and with the best in the country here to race for the rich purses there should be no lack of good sport.
“A visit to the course yesterday disclosed the fact that an unpainted paddock and a none too gorgeous grandstand would greet the crowds Saturday. But the view from this stand, however unfinished the structure may be, is well worth anybody’s time and money.
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
“Looking off across the field, past the smooth track itself and over beyond the line of white rails that mark the course, the stables loom like army barracks. Further on come the brown fields and orange groves, and in the distance the Sierra Madre, nestling against the mountains of that name, greets the eye like a picture from the brush of a master. The mountains themselves, rugged and still untouched by the season’s snow, loom up in majestic splendor to form a background for all, the trails to Mt. Wilson and Mt. Lowe leading like silver threads to the observations at the top.
“Work on the grandstand and paddock, was in full swing all day and night, but even with a full force swinging hammers and applying paint brushed there is no chance of a fully completed place. The outside rail around the track will be finished today and the steps leading to the stand from the front are yet to be put in place.
“Those sports[men] who care for racing as a pastime and not as a speculative proposition may be pleased to know that from almost any point outside the ground at Santa Anita an unobstructed view of each and every race can be obtained. It is rather new to these parts to be able to get something for nothing. Unless some patrolling system is established the man too cheap or too poor to dig up admission money can have all the racing he wants gratis.”
Two days later, Santa Anita opened and the L.A. Herald had this review of the new facility:
“And after the day was done nothing but words of praise – aside from the comments on the car service – were heard on all sides. The beauty of the track, the class of horses, betting facilities, ample room to sit and stand as suited the fancy – everything was satisfactory and Santa Anita’s first day closed in a blaze of glory, long to be remembered as a fitting baptismal for the handsomest and most perfect track in America.”
The first Santa Anita was short-lived but wildly successful. Owners shipped their steeds by rail from all over the country. The track even earned a left-handed compliment from the New York Evening World under the headline: “Racing at Los Angeles Showing Improvement.” The paper praised the new track but added that it was the “influx of New York horsemen adding new life to the game on coast.”
In the tradition of west coast ovals, the track was lightning fast. At least three world records were broken in its two seasons. The records for five and half furlongs (1:05), a mile (1:37 1/5), and a mile and an eighth (1:50) were all set in its short history.
Like racing in New York, California racing nearly died at the hands of “do-gooders.” As it did in New York, it made a comeback and played a significant role in racing’s rise to prominence in the middle of the twentieth century.
Racing returned to Baldwin’s Ranch in 1934 when the current Santa Anita Park opened – reviving the legacy of West Coast racing’s founding father.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW?
Not being familiar with the current track or the area (except what I see on TVG), I am wondering if any reader knows where old Santa Anita was located in relation to the current track? As I was writing this, I felt a bit in the dark having never visited the area. Like all things historical, I assume there is some local knowledge about old Santa Anita that I missed here. Please send me an email or post a comment below.
SOURCES, NOTES, OBSERVATIONS
News accounts courtesy of Library of Congress Historic American Newspapers and New York Times Archive (NY Times requires registration):
“Track View is Pleasing,” Los Angeles Herald, December 5, 1907
“Carman Victories Provide Features of Inaugural Day,” Los Angeles Sunday Herald, December 8, 1907
“New World’s Turf Record on Coast,” New York Times, December 20, 1908
“Racing at Los Angeles Showing Improvement,” New York Evening World, December 21, 1908
“Centre Shot’s World’s Turf Mark,” New York Times, December 23, 1908
“California Racing’s Doom,” New York Times, February 20, 1909
“Lucky Baldwin Loses to Death in Last Race,” San Francisco Call, March 2, 1909
Ron Hale, “E.J. ‘Lucky’ Baldwin and Santa Anita,” http://horseracing.about.com/library/blbaldwin.htm
William H.P. Robertson, The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, 1964
The Library of Congress has a significant collection of images online from Santa Anita Park in their Prints and Photographs Catalog. Among them are images from the park when was it used as an “assembly center” for the relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.
Can anyone explain why Santa Anita Park’s website has no history of the track. C’mon now! Did I miss it? Hey Magna! The history of the game is pretty significant — you should check that out when you have a minute.
This is my last post until after Breeders Cup. I will not be playing the races on “female” Friday and will limit my wagering on “male” Saturday. The only way the BC folks will listen to the fans is if the handle suffers. So my contribution to the BC this year will be insignificant. Let’s hope the arrogance of the BC doesn’t ruin what has been one of the highlights of the racing calendar.
Thanks for Reading and Good Luck!