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The Story of Santa Anita

Coast fans once said it could never succeed, but a San Francisco dentist proved them wrong with the “Miracle Mile,” top U. S. glamor track


THE late Elias Jackson (Lucky) Baldwin made millions from his gold-mine holdings in the fabulous Comstock Lode, and bought the historic 50,000 acre Rancho Santa Anita near Los Angeles with some of the swag. But Lucky never struck it so rich as the men who purchased 401 acres of his verdant rancho and built the even more fabulous Santa Anita track-known in racing circles as the “Miracle Mile.”

Nestled at the foot of the Sierra Madres, their 6000-foot peaks dominating picturesque San Gabriel Valley, is Santa Anita, the house that jack -barrels of it- built. The Far West’s mid-Winter mecca for turf followers has returned dividends that make Baldwin look like a penny-ante operator.

First opened on Christmas Day, 1934, this initial meeting ran sixty-five days. The total handle was $15,896,365, with a daily average of $244,559.

Contrast this with the 1945-46 meeting of fifty-five days which saw the staggering sum of $140,686,571 wagered for a daily average of $2,557,9351.

Don’t try to tell Santa Anita that money isn’t everything. Why, there’s even a rumor making the rounds that Great Britain is trying to negotiate a loan through the fabulous California racetrack!

It wasn’t easy sailing at first. During that maiden meeting there were anxious days when the track actually handled less than $100,000 a day. But before you shed any tears, we hasten to assure you that business is booming out Arcadia way.

On wind-up day last year, when Fred Astaire’s Triplicate won the closing feature, 60,000 Southern Californians wagered more than $4,OOO,000-the second time Santa Anita had passed this figure for a single day.

Those who originally invested their money to build the track need only peek at their bank books to discover that they made a strike never dreamed of by Lucky Baldwin. Stock which originally sold for $5000 a share now brings $40,000-if you can find it. Santa Anita paid its stockholders a 55 percent dividend the first year and 85 percent the next. At the end of the second season every investor had his money back-plus. And those meetings were financial peewees compared to subsequent seasons at the Miracle Mile.

Track officials are close-mouthed about the plant’s profits, but in 1939-after only four years of operation-the Lost Angeles Turf Club had paid out $3,314,000 in cash dividends in addition to doubling the value of the stock, and had rewarded its organizer and guiding genius, Dr. Carles H. Strub, with a bonus of $187,618, plus his yearly salary.

The birth of Santa Anita is in itself an intriguing story. In 1933 a group of Southern California sportsmen conceived the idea of forming the Los Angeles Turf Club, to bring back horse racing after a lapse of twenty-five years.

Among these citizens were Hal Roach, the movie mogul; Carleton Burke, famed polo player; Gwynn Wilson, who had helped to stage the successful 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles; the late Kenneth R. Kingsbury, president of the Standard Oil Company of California; and the late Felix S. McGinnis, president of the Santa Fe Railroad.

They huddled many times, but although most of them were willing to gamble on the revival of racing, they were unable to interest enough additional support to finance the venture completely.

In Northern California, another group, headed by Dr. Strub, was organizing the St. Francis Jockey Club. They were having their troubles, too. So when the Southern California contingent contacted Dr. Strub relative to their venture they found a willing and well-heeled listener. Dr. Strub had his pockets bulging with Fleishhacker money-which was as negotiable as the next guy’s.

A shrewd businessman and a visionist, Dr. Strub drove a hard bargain. In return for investing his own money and that of his syndicate, Strub demanded that he be named general manager of Santa Anita. It was the most profitable deal he ever made.

The one-time credit dentist is the controlling stockholder at Santa Anita, and six members of his family own large blocks. Although he handed over the managerial reins to his assistant, Gwynn Wilson, in 1945, Doc Strub is still the man who pulls the strings.

The day Wilson moved up, Doc denied any intention of selling his holdings. “I am, and have been for some time, the largest individual stockholder in Santa Anita Park. I have not sold, and do not intend to sell, my controlling stock,” he said.

Doc Strub came to Santa Anita with a deep-rooted sports background. A native of California, he played baseball at Santa Clara prep school under the tutelage of Charley Graham, with whom he was later to purchase the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast Baseball League.

While studying dentistry at the University of California, he played third base, pitched, and caught for the Golden Bear varsity baseball team, which boasted three players who later went to the major leagues-Orvie Overall, Heinie Heitmuller, and Jack Bliss.

Together with Graham and the late George (Alfy) Putnam, Doc early showed his business acumen by divesting numerous major league magnates of six-figure sums in exchange for robust young men who could throw, hit, and run.

He asked $100,000 from the New York Giants for outfielder Jimmy O’Connell-and got $75,000, He later sold Willie Kamm to the Chicago White Sox for $125,000-the largest straight cash deal in baseball history, up to that time.

In his time Doc peddled $1,000,000 worth of ballplayers to the majors, including Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Lefty O’Doul, Lefty Gomez, Frankie Crosetti, Earl Averill, Joe Marty, Smead Jolley, Roy Johnson, Augie Galan, Gussie Suhr, Paul Waner, Jimmy Caveney, and Hal Rhyme.

Doc is still a Seal stockholder and had something to shout about again last Summer when his Midas touch paid of with another Coast League pennant. The Seals, under the astute showmanship of Manager Lefty O’Doul, set a new minor league attendance record of more than 670,000 fans.

Those who are acquainted with Doc’s record of achievement are well aware that luck is not the major factor in his success-albeit Dame Fortune seldom gives the brush-off. Doc has the happy faculty of choosing competent associates. In addition to Wilson, who became graduate manager at the University of Southern California after a brilliant athletic career as Trojan track and field captain, Strub drafted two men named Jack McKenzie and Willard Tunney.

All three were important cogs in the management of the 1932 Olympics. McKenzie had been graduate manager of his Alma Mater, the University of California at Berkeley. Tunney held the same position at Loyola University, Lose Angeles.

These enterprising, alert young men brought to Santa Anita many innovations that have since been adopted throughout turfdom. They whittled the free list to the bone and in the face of dire predictions by some pessimists, charged admission fees.

They charged for programs and parking, two sources of revenue which have been most lucrative. Other firsts for Santa Anita include the photo finish introduced at the opening meeting, visual electric timing in 1935-36 and the magnetic control starting gate in 1939-40.

Stakes and purses last season amounted to $2,464,250, daily distribution average of $44,804 and race average of $5600 being an all-time high for any racing association. For five years Santa Anita led all tracks in money distributed.

The track leads in glamor too. Its races regularly attract Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Edgar Bergen, Jana Russell, Cary Grant, Ester Williams, and other stars. Bing Crosby, Joe E. Brown, Al Jolson, and Harry Warner are all stockholders.

Yes, turfmen have really struck pay dirt at Rancho Santa Anita. In nine seasons they have “panned” $9,753,827 from Lucky Baldwin’s old diggings.

But starting December 28th they began tapping the richest vein in the 500-odd years of horse racing. The Santa Anita Handicap on March 1 once again becomes the world’s top money race, enhanced with $100,000 guaranteed the winner for the first time.

The Santa Anita Derby on March 8 will tempt the country’s top youngsters with a $100,000 added purse, and there will be ten other stakes each carrying $50,000 added in prize money. This stake program alone means $700,000 to horsemen. The minimum will probably be $3500, and there will be numerous overnight purses ranging up to $10,000.

But while Santa Anita’s Hundred Grander offers the turf’s richest prize, horsemen will be tempting fate when they try to crash the winner’s circle. Nearly all of the nine winners of the Handicap met with misfortune soon after their epic victories.

The British-bred Azucar (Spanish for Sugar) won a purse of $108,400 in the inaugural Hundred Grander of 1935 and never won another important race.

A. A. Baroni’s game title Top Row took second running of the classic, broke down, came back and tried for the same prize two years later-and finished far back.

Foxcatcher Farms’ magnificent Rosemont, the first of two ‘Cap winners to nose out the mighty Seabiscuit, never amounted to much after winning in 1937.

Seabiscuit suffered his second nose defeat in 1938 when Col. Maxwell Howard’s colt, Stagehead, was the winner. The only horse to win both the Derby and Handicap at Santa Anita, Stagehand immediately was installed as an odds-on choice to win the ’38 Kentucky Derby. But the colt developed a fever, and Trainer Earl Sande was forced to scratch him from the Run of the Roses.

Kayak II finished first in 1939 and then trailed his stablemate, Seabiscuit, to the wire in ’40. Kayak developed tendon trouble while prepping for the ’41 classic and was sent to the breeding farm.

Seabiscuit, seven years old when finally victorious in 1940, retired to stud, and now there are little ‘Biscuits running all over the country.

Tony Pelleteri’s Bay View, 1941 longshot winner, returned the top price of Handicap history, paying $118.40 for a $2 ticket. this four-year-old gelding then ran dead last in the track’s closing feature the following week-end, and hasn’t won a race since.

Louie B. Mayer’s Thumbs Up, first winner of the post-war renewal in 1945, went wrong after his biggest moment of glory.

Of all the great horses which have run at Santa Anita, Equipoise, Twenty Grand, Discovery, Time Supply, Indian Broom, Pompoon, Can’t Wait, Challedon, Mioland and Gay Dalton, none has been more popular than Seabiscuit.

His two nose defeats not only cost his loyal following thousands of dollars but meant to his owner, Charles S. Howard of San Francisco, an actual loss of $142,150-the difference between first and second money.

But despite his defeats, Howard stubbornly clung to the hope that Seabiscuit one day would make it. So in 1940 there was another miracle on Santa Anita’s Miracle Mile.

Seabiscuit couldn’t come back, the wiseacres said, because of a ruptured suspensory ligament. But they reckoned without the courage of this stout-hearted steed. Seabiscuit was a miracle horse and come back he did, running away from Kayak and all the others to bag the pot of gold in the record time of 2:01 1-5, carrying 130 pounds over the mile and one-quarter distance. This record, incidentally, still stands, a tribute to the incomparable star of the Howard stable.

Incidentally, the winner’s circle at Santa Anita was facetiously dubbed “Howard’s Half Acre”-and with good reason for he dragged down $257,750 with two first and four seconds in the Hundred Grander. Howard’s third ace, Mioland, ran second to Bay View.

Yes, they’ve really got a gold mine at Santa Anita. They even cash in on the by-products. Last year the track realized a tidy $5000 profit on the sale of fertilizer from the stables!

 

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