Sunday, February 06, 2011
The Strub Gets a Shot in the Arm
With apologies to Woody Allen, the Strub Stakes has become an irrelevance wrapped inside an anomaly wrapped inside an anachronism. Spectacular Bid won it when it was a Grade I race. Affirmed won it when he was reigning Triple Crown champion, and the proud history of the Strub had started building long before him. Two of the first eight Strub winners (OK, the name of the race was the Santa Anita Maturity then), Ponder and Determine, were Kentucky Derby winners. But something happened to the Strub along the way, and by the 1990s, it had been downgraded, was no longer worth a half-million, had been shortened to nine furlongs and there was no longer a compelling reason to run a race restricted to 4-year-olds, since most of the good 3-year-olds from the year before were having the time of their lives, going on blind dates in Kentucky.
We hadn't mentioned the Strub, but a few of us were discussing the Good Old Days during an e-mail exchange recently, and the Strub would have fit in perfectly with the over-riding theme. Mark Ratzky, bouncing off the notion that many of the Horses of the Year from 1997 to 2008 weren't as salty as the group between 1971 and 1996, said it was the same way with movies. "Since the end of the 1970s," he said, "with a few exceptions, there's been a steady downhill slide (in film quality)."
I'm reminded of that wonderful Louis Malle film, "Atlantic City" (which was released in 1980 and, without asking Ratzky, I would imagine it would be one of the exceptions). At one point, a young drug dealer from Canada and Burt Lancaster, playing an aging small-time hustler, are walking along the Boardwalk.
"Hey," the pusher says in wonderment, "that's the Atlantic Ocean out there."
"Yeah, but it's not what it used to be," Lancaster says. "Kid, you should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then."
During the recent palaver about horses, movies and baseball, somebody said: "The world of our youth looks better every day."
You really knew the Strub was in trouble when in the movie "Seabiscuit," the William H. Macy character, the inimitable Tick Tock McGlaughlin, said the family name as though it rhymed with schlub. (Chris McCarron, a consultant on the picture, told the moviemakers about the gaffe, and they said they'd fix it, but they didn't).
It's Strub as in tube, by the way. I'm not sure how much longer Santa Anita can keep running the Strub at its current conditions, because instead of being a stand-alone race, it's now not much more than a Santa Anita Handicap prep, and when the track runs the San Antonio Handicap the same weekend, it's like competing with yourself for a horse population that, if it were a state, would be Rhode Island.
Runnings of the Strubs in recent years vanished into the windmills of the mind, the memory with the dust before the winning horse had barely cooled out. But maybe, when the 2012 Strub rolls around, we'll remember Twirling Candy, the 2011 winner. With little encouragement from his jockey, Joel Rosario, Twirling Candy won as he pleased. He was 1 to 5 on the tote, and he ran like it. Times over Santa Anita's new dirt track lack the heft they might otherwise, but Twirling Candy's 1:46.53 clocking is the second-fastest since the distance became a mile and an eighth in 1998. Is this a reflection on the short life of the synthetic surface, and the caliber of the other horses that have won the race? Perhaps. But Twirling Candy has now won six of seven lifetime, on grass, artificial and dirt, and his future is no pipedream. John Sadler, a trainer not known for waking up every morning to cartwheels, said that his charge is the best horse in the country. "My job is just to be a good steward and take care of him," he said. "He's such a natural runner." The Strub needed a winner like this. For old time's sake.