Monday, March 15, 2010
Post-Zenyatta Day at Santa Anita
ARCADIA, Calif., March 16, 2010--The day after Zenyatta won for the 15th straight time, Santa Anita still couldn't get enough of her. Ron Charles, who runs the joint when Frank Stronach isn't around, played the part of Janus. Looking backward, he was thankful that Zenyatta had single-handedly accounted for that rare day, a big crowd with betting inclinations. But then Charles looked ahead, and didn't necessarily like what he saw. "That might be the last time we see her at Santa Anita," he said gloomily. The dropoff for turnstile draws in racing is precipitous.
Allen Gutterman, Santa Anita's marketing chief, went into denial before our very eyes. "You sure?" he said to Charles. "She's got to run in the Zenyatta Stakes, doesn't she?" In a weak, knee-jerk moment, the Oak Tree people, who lease Santa Anita for a fall meet, renamed their best stake for fillies and mares late last year. After running the race 17 times as the Lady's Secret Stakes, they figured it was time for a change. Gene Klein, wherever he is, didn't get a vote.
Leaving Charles and Gutterman, my wife Pat and I sat down at a table on the glass in the FrontRunner restaurant. We were surrounded by jockeys, present and past. Don Pierce was on one side, and on the other side of Pierce were Eddie Delahoussaye, Ray York and Alex Maese. Behind me was Calvin Borel, who wasn't there to explain away Rachel Alexandra's defeat at the Fair Grounds the day before, but to pick up the trophy for winning the George Woolf Award.
Maese, who's 80, was the oldest Woolf winner in attendance. Tanned and trim, perfectly straight, he looks great. "Pete Moreno is older than me, but he's not here today," Maese said.
York is 77, and to show you how he's slowing down, he and his good friend, who goes by Michael but I find that hard to believe, were flying to London the next day. Every time I see York, I ask him for his business card, because it comes with a winner's circle snap of Determine, winner of the 1954 Kentucky Derby. The only other jockey I know who carries cards with his Kentucky Derby winner on them is Bobby Ussery. There are shots of Proud Clarion and Dancer's Image on Ussery's card. When I remind him that Dancer's Image was disqualified, Ussery says, "Yeah, but he still crossed the line in front."
York is a fount of stories from yore, and while his recounting of the night he tangled with 240-pound Les Richter of the Los Angeles Rams wasn't bad, I still liked best the story his friend Michael told about Johnny Longden. She was at Longden's barn one morning when they were talking about winner's circle pictures and photo finishes.
"If you want to see my favorite picture, come inside," Longden said.
In the stable office, Longden opened a drawer and produced his body X-ray.
If Borel was glum about Rachel Alexandra's defeat, it didn't show. In so many words, he said that with different instructions he might have had a better chance, and how that will fly with Steve Asmussen, the filly's trainer, we'll have to wait and see. Borel came to Santa Anita with his brother, the trainer Cecil Borel; his agent of almost 25 years, Jerry Hissam; and Lisa Funk, who some say has been his fiancee for almost as long. In the winner's circle, Borel, near tears, accepted the Woolf trophy and made a short speech. He always thanks his deceased parents and he didn't forget this time.
After the races, Santa Anita threw a party for Borel and the other Woolf winners at The Derby, the restaurant Woolf used to own. Mike Smith came in, and sat at the same table as Borel. Getting the jockey of Zenyatta and the rider of Rachel Alexandra in one another's company was a photo op that wasn't wasted. "Calvin is the hardest-working jockey in the country," Smith said. They both signed those trading cards--cards to promote a race that won't happen--put out by the Hot Springs Convention Bureau.
The trainer Bruce Headley, who saddled his first winner at Santa Anita in the 1950s, was there, and I asked him if Zenyatta was the best filly or mare he'd ever seen.
"I would have Two Lea number one and Zenyatta number two," Headley said. Interesting. Two Lea was part of the super era at Calumet Farm, when they seemed to have a champion in every stall. In a couple of respected polls, by the Blood-Horse in 1999 and the old Thoroughbred Racing Action a decade before, Two Lea was 77th in one and didn't even make the first 100 in another. She had a tendency to get swallowed up by tub-thumping for Citation, Coaltown, Bewitched, Armed, Hill Gail, Wistful and A Gleam, all part of the Calumet assembly line.
"When Two Lea ran against the colts from her own stable, Calumet wanted to make sure the colts won," Headley said.
Two Lea won the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1952, giving 13 pounds to the second-place horse, and two years before she might have been best in the Santa Anita Maturity, now known as the Strub. That was the only day Eddie Arcaro rode her. Turning for home, Arcaro had his filly in front, but he gave her only token encouragement through the stretch as Ponder, the 1949 Kentucky Derby winner, and Steve Brooks went on by. Two Lea was still only beaten by a length, and knowing Arcaro, he probably asked someone to cut his heart out afterwards.