Santa Anita Park celebrated its 75th anniversary of the venerable horse race track on Dec. 26, 2009, the opening day of the 2009-10 winter meet that drew the largest crowd in 10 years (35,292).
Thanks to Pete Siberell at Santa Anita; Sandy Snider, co-author “Where Ranch and City Meet”; and the Arcadia Historical Society Historical Marker Committee: Scott Hettrick (chairman), Carol Libby, Gary Kovacic, Gene Glasco, Don Swenson.
The following is a summary of the many notable aspects, achievements and moments related to the track. Some of the photos and text below are included on the Marker:
Set against the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains in an area of near year-round ideal weather, Santa Anita Park has been considered one of the most beautiful and finest horse race tracks in the world since its opening on Christmas Day, 1934.
It has also been one of the most consistently successful with record crowds of more than 85,000 attending races March 1, 1947 and nearly 40 years later on March 3, 1985, according to the track’s Golden Anniversary Souvenir Album.
Look magazine in 1948 declared Santa Anita “the world’s richest race track,” noting that bets totaled more than $123 million in 50 race days in its 1946-47 meet, tops in the country, with Santa Anita claiming nearly $10 million from those wagers.
Santa Anita, under founder Charles H. Strub, introduced such innovations as the photo finish in the very first season, a public address announcer calling the race, instant electrical timing flashed at intervals during the race for public viewing, the magnetic control gate for simultaneous release at the start, the only turf course in America with a right-hand and downhill slope, and was the first track in the United States to introduce a continuous $100,000 race – the “Hundred Grander” Santa Anita Handicap.
Some of racing’s most famous horses and jockeys are most closely associated with Santa Anita, from Seabiscuit and John Henry to Citation, Spectacular Bid, and Zenyatta, and from George “The Iceman” Woolf and Johnny Longden to Willie Shoemaker, Chris McCarron and Laffit Pincay, Jr.
Santa Anita was also the showcase venue for the equestrian events of the 1984 Olympics and has been home to five annual international Breeders’ Cup series since the event began in 1984, starting with the third Cup in 1986 and including the first-ever back-to-back events at the same track in 2008-2009.
“Lucky” Baldwin Racing Roots
Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, the founder of Arcadia in 1903, introduced horse racing to his Rancho Santa Anita when he arrived in 1875 and was acclaimed as the most successful racing man in America in his time.
In addition to winning 15 of 25 races at Saratoga in a single season, Baldwin had four winners of the American Derby in Chicago from 1885 – 1894. All four winners – Volante, Silver Cloud, Emperor of Norfolk, and Rey el Santa Anita – are buried near the east general admission gates in the paddock area at Santa Anita under a concrete monument in the shape of a Maltese Cross that was Baldwin’s insignia displayed in black and red on his silks.
He built a training course near the current Santa Anita Park off of today’s Colorado Blvd. and a one-mile oval track in the style of the Ascot Park track in Los Angeles that had to shut down due to restrictions on gambling in that city.
The original Santa Anita Park opened with a swell of 7,000 patrons and dignitaries on December 7, 1907 on the property that is now the eastern end of the Santa Anita Golf Course. But just 15 months later, in February, 1909, the state of California also outlawed horse racing. Within a few weeks of the ban, Baldwin died on March 1, 1909 at age 80. The racing season at Baldwin’s track was allowed to continue until its final day on April 18. The grandstand was burned in 1912.
Anticipating California’s eventual legalizing of pari-mutuel betting in June 1933, Baldwin’s daughter Anita partnered with Joseph M. Smoot, the builder of Florida’s Hialeah Park track, to build a new track west of the current Santa Anita track on 207 acres along today’s Coronado Drive. She received a license and zoning approval in July 1932 under the name Los Angeles Jockey Club.
Eight months into construction, work was abruptly halted amidst reports of unpaid bills and Smoot disappeared, leaving Anita Baldwin with the project half-built. Forced to abandon the track and under pressure to pay off taxes on her properties, Anita sold 214 acres of land east of her track project to the Los Angeles Turf Club, recently-formed by Santa Anita partners Charles H. Strub and Hollywood movie producer Hal Roach for $236,300.
In a fitting honor, Anita Baldwin presented the winner’s trophy at the inaugural Santa Anita Handicap on February 23, 1935.
Mr. Santa Anita
Charles H. “Doc” Strub, a native Californian born in 1884, was the visionary who created Santa Anita Park and is credited with changing the face of American horse racing more than any man of his time. Especially considering the bias towards East Coast racing in his day, it is particularly notable that the New York Turf Writers Association proclaimed Strub as “The man who did the most for racing.”
The former dentist whose practice was destroyed in the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 then shook up the world of professional baseball before shifting his sights to horse racing. As owner of the San Francisco Seals from 1917 – 1938, Strub pioneered the development and sale of players such as Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, and Paul Waner at extraordinarily high prices to the Major Leagues – as much as $100,000 when the going rate was less than $20,000. He also pleased baseball writers by feeding them a free lunch in the Club dining room during games.
Despite losing much of his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929, Strub vowed to rebuild it, saying, “I made it once and I can make it again.” Having fallen in love with horse racing, he set out to build the St. Francis Jockey Club in San Francisco with partners including Standard Oil Co. of California president Kenneth R. Kingsbury (the grand fountain in the paddock gardens at Santa Anita showcasing the names of Handicap and Derby winners on its base was dedicated during the 1938-39 season as the Kingsbury Memorial Fountain in honor of Strub’s board member who died in 1937).
He received the very first license by the California Horse Racing Board to build and operate the St. Francis Woods track in San Francisco in 1933 after California rescinded its 1909 statewide ban on the sport and legalized pari-mutuel betting. But he was unable to get the required zoning changes.
So Strub turned his eyes to Southern California, where movie mogul Hal Roach, whose stable of stars and productions included Laurel & Hardy, the “Our Gang” series, Will Rogers, and Harold Lloyd — was struggling to raise more than half of the $1 million required by the CHRB to be in the bank before it would grant a license for a track near his studios in Culver City.
CHRB chairman Carleton Burke wanted a track built on the old Rancho Santa Anita to carry on the horse racing traditions set by Lucky Baldwin before racing was outlawed.
Strub was inspired by the 1932 Olympics at the Coliseum to build a venue that would draw the kinds of crowds of 60,000 people or so that were only seen in Southern California in those days at the Olympics and at USC and UCLA football games.
Strub and Roach teamed up to create the Los Angeles Turf Club and Santa Anita Park, purchasing 214 acres of Rancho Santa Anita land from Lucky Baldwin’s daughter Anita to build the new track just north of the land on which Lucky built his track 26 years earlier and slightly east of the location at which Anita had to abandon her track project only months earlier.
Strub was ridiculed when he decided to sell stock in Santa Anita at the whopping price of $5,000 per share in 1933 during the Depression.
One of the first and most key people Strub hired for his management team was Gwynn Wilson, the man who, while working at USC, persuaded Knute Rockne in 1926 to agree to create the USC-Notre Dame annual rivalry, and who then went on to manage the operations of the 1932 Olympics.
(The venture came full circle when Wilson, who continued with Santa Anita until 1960, attended the 1984 Olympics equestrian events held at Santa Anita, which was then run by Los Angeles Turf Club, Inc. president Robert P. Strub, the son of Mr. Santa Anita” Charles H. Strub, who died March 28, 1958.)
With Wilson on board as treasurer and general manager, Santa Anita Park opened just two years after the 1932 Olympics on Christmas Day in 1934, drawing more than 30,000 people.
Strub bucked numerous racing conventions. He charged a $1 admission and refused to offer free passes to anyone – he believed racing should lure only those patrons who could afford to pay admission and lose money on a bet; and partner Roach, president of the Club, further implored, “Bet only what you can afford to lose, and not what you hope to win.”
He also ensured a pleasurable racing experience for the customer, generating a reputation for Santa Anita as the cleanest and most well-policed track in the world.
Believing that patrons would be willing to pay a little extra for that kind of attention and convenience, Strub also took the unusual step of charging patrons for parking — .25-cents. At a time when most people were left on their own to find a place to park around sporting venues, Strub provided an expansive 195-acre parking lot and charged a fee to use it.
Even more importantly, Strub offered a race with a then-whopping $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap purse in 1935 when the Kentucky Derby that year was $30,000, an $800 minimum purse for all races versus an industry average of $400 – $600, and set a wintertime race schedule when most major Eastern tracks were not running.
The strategy paid off in not only drawing immediate attention to Santa Anita from the racing world but also drawing the most prestigious names and full stables in the sport to Santa Anita, many from the East Coast, assuring full race cards for the entire season.
Among the Who’s Who of Racing on opening day were Kentucky Derby winners and former champions such as Cavalcade, Twenty Grand and Equipoise, the latter two of which came out of retirement.
One of the finest 20-horse fields ever was assembled for the inaugural “Hundred Grander” Santa Anita Handicap on Feb. 23, 1935, drawing 34,269 fans who collectively wagered $802,553. One of racing’s all-time greatest jockeys, George Woolf, came from way back in the field on little-known Azucar to win the 1 ¼-mile “Big ‘Cap” by two lengths in a thrilling and crowd-pleasing upset.
Despite the fact that Strub had to borrow $300,000 for betting-window change as the track opened, the result of all the innovation and prestige was that the track paid for itself the first year.
Strub became the second-highest salaried executive in the United States by 1945. By 1947 Santa Anita had earned more than $14 million and those $5,000 shares of Santa Anita stock in 1933 could be sold for $62,500.
Award-winning Track Design
Santa Anita Park general manager Gwynn Wilson told The Los Angeles Times in 1986 that one of the smartest things he did in building Santa Anita Park was to select Gordon Kaufman as the architect. Kaufman would become most noted for his design of the Hoover Dam, as well as the Los Angeles Times building, both designed around the same time as Santa Anita. After Gordon and Wilson toured about 20 race tracks in Texas, Florida, Maryland, Chicago, and New York, Gordon decided on the distinctive Art Deco style for Santa Anita, punctuated by the equestrian-themed frieze created by Kaufman designer Chet Phillips that run the length of the grandstand.
Santa Anita won an architecture prize in 1937 at the Paris Exposition and a design and execution of work award in 1939 from the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Opening Day Christmas Present
The 30,777 people who found their way to Santa Anita Park in Arcadia on Christmas Day in 1934 (population est. 7,000) and wagered $258,916, including celebrities Will Rogers, Al Jolson, and Ruby Keeler, represented the first of many decades of successful days and seasons at Santa Anita Park. Opening day crowds would only get bigger through the years, with more than 71,000 fans crowding into the stadium in 1960, according to the Forty Seasons of Greatness edition of the annual Santa Anita Track Guide.
Lights, Camera, Action! Hollywood at Santa Anita
Ever since 1930s film producer Hal Roach partnered with Charles H. Strub to finance Santa Anita, the track has been a magnet for Hollywood movie stars as a favorite entertainment venue, a place to be seen, a track to show off their horses, and as a location to film movies and TV shows.
During its early years the parade of luminaries included Clark Gable, Betty Grable, Lou Costello, and Marlene Dietrich. Over the first three-quarters of a century, movie moguls such as MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and stars ranging from Bing Crosby, Errol Flynn, and Spencer Tracy to Kevin Costner and Alex Trebek turned out to race their own horses at Santa Anita.
Mayer was the top owner at the Santa Anita stables in the 1945 and 1946 seasons with a stable led by Horse of the Year Busher and Honeymoon.
Most people know that much of the Oscar-nominated “Seabiscuit” was filmed at Santa Anita Park. Others may realize that the famed track has served as the location for many other high-profile race-related movies beginning almost immediately after it opened with with “Charlie Chan at the Race Track” (1936) and the Marx Bros. madcap comedy “A Day at the Races” in 1937.
Not as commonly known is that the track’s Art Deco design and distinctive interior areas such as the Chandelier Room have been used each year in movies with themes that may or may not have anything to do with racing that have starred the likes of Judy Garland (“A Star is Born,” 1954), and Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (“Notorious,” 1946).
Chevy Chase and the cast of the 1983 National Lampoon comedy “Vacation” ran excitedly in front of the main front gates that served as the entrance to the Walley World theme park. Johnny Depp filmed selected scenes from “Public Enemies” in 2009. And dozens of popular TV series ranging from “Perry Mason” in the 1950s, “Quincy M.E.” in the 1970s to “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2008 and “Brothers and Sisters” and “90210” in 2009 have used the expansive site to double for locations as far away as Seattle and as nearby as Pasadena.
Thanks to legendary Depression-era performances that made him an iconic symbol of hope, including a victorious “Match of the Century” against Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938 that drew a radio audience of more than 40 million listeners, and the Oscar-nominated 2003 feature film that immortalized him for another generation, Seabiscuit is unquestionably the most famous thoroughbred champion associated with Santa Anita. The Horse of the Year in 1938 finally won the race in 1940 that had previously eluded him, the Santa Anita Handicap. In his final race at nearly 7-years-old on February 9 and carrying the maximum weight of 130 pounds, in front of a jubilant crowd estimated at 78,000, Seabiscuit set a new track record and the fastest ten furlongs (1 ½ miles) ever run on the American turf.
A life-size bronze statue of Seabiscuit stands in the paddock area not far from a statue honoring jockey George Woolf, who died the morning after a fall during a race at Santa Anita on Jan. 4, 1946, both sculpted by Tex Wheeler.
A third bronze statue is to be unveiled Dec. 26, 2009 of 1981 & 1984 Horse of the Year John Henry. The only time a Horse of the Year has been a unanimous choice in 1981 and the oldest horse ever to win the honor in 1984, John Henry is also one of only three horses to win back-to-back Santa Anita Handicaps (1981-82).
Other high-profile champion horses s at Santa Anita include Affirmed, Swaps, Noor, Roundtable, Silver Spoon, Cougar II, Ack Ack, Citation, Winning Colors, and Spectacular Bid.
Santa Anita Enlists in War Effort
Santa Anita Park served a vital military role during World War II.
Racing was suspended for three years from 1942-1944. During most of that time the U.S. Government took over the facility and converted it into Camp Santa Anita, one of the largest Army ordnance training centers in the West. As many as 18,000 soldiers went through classes every four months, about half of them assigned to live in horse stalls and the rest in tent barracks in the parking lot. One of the soldiers assigned there to Camp Santa Anita was owner Charles H. Strub’s own son, Robert Strub, a captain who served as the camp’s signal officer and who would later become manager of operations at the track in 1947 and later president.
Charles Strub and his team headed up fund-raising drives that raised more than $4 million to run the Housing Service for soldiers and sailors.
And Santa Anita’s Los Angeles Turf Club promoted USO Clubs throughout California, with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Red Skelton, Phil Silvers, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson just a few of the celebrities to entertain the troops at Camp Santa Anita.
During this time LATC also purchased Gladden Products Corp. on Oct. 8., 1943 to produce high precision airplane hydraulic parts for local aircraft manufacturers that twice earned the Army-Navy an “E” pennant for efficiency and great contributions to the war effort.
Near the end of the war as the troops left, the government briefly used the facility to house German prisoners of war before returning the track to Strub and the LATC on Sept. 9, 1944, along with about $1.5 million to assist in restoring the facility for racing purposes.
Prior to Camp Santa Anita and only a little more than 100 days after the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Santa Anita was first used by the federal government for more than six months from March 30 – Oct. 27, 1942 as an assembly center for as many as 22,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to be processed and sent to prison camps elsewhere.
Santa Anita re-opened exactly one week after Victory in Europe (V-E) Day on May 8, 1945, for a 40-day meet from May 15 – July 7, drawing an all-time season attendance record average of 35,247 per day that still stands. Massive crowds packed the stadium on the first two military and patriotic holidays following the war, with more than 75,000 on Memorial Day and more than 60,000 on July 4.
On the Right Tracks
With a local Arcadia population of only about 7,000, it was important that Santa Anita provided easy access for patrons from all over Los Angeles County. Critical to that strategy was the location of train tracks and a stop for L.A.’s famous Pacific Electric “Red Car” trains directly in front of the entrance to Santa Anita on Huntington Drive. Thousands of people and horses alike poured out of crowded trains and were herded along platforms to their respective turnstiles or stalls.
Decades later the Interstate 210 Freeway was installed just a few blocks to the north of the track, providing automobiles from all over the region easy access to the vast parking lots.
Golden Olympics Performance
More than half-a-century after founder Charles H. Strub was inspired by the 1932 Olympics at the Coliseum in Los Angeles to build Santa Anita Park, the 52-year-old track played host venue for equestrian events when the Olympics returned to Los Angeles in 1984.
A total of 232,158 people attended Santa Anita during the nine days of competition from July 29 – Aug 12, with 250 horses representing 31 nations.
It was an opportunity for Santa Anita to exhibit its nationally-recognized assets to the world. But it would take a Herculean effort.
After several years and millions of dollars in construction upgrades, the most visibly dramatic alterations – an extension of the grandstands and arena across the main track up the stairs into the primary grandstands – could not be started until immediately after the conclusion of the regular racing season in April.
“It was an incredible engineering feat,” marveled Alan Balch, Santa Anita senior vice president of marketing and assistant general manager. In his additional role as competition director for the Games at the track, Balch worked closely for several years with the president of the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI), who happened to be His Royal Highness Prince Philip of Britain, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
Among the many memorable moments was the Prince’s rather shocking request about halfway through the Games to drive the awards podium sled pulled by the Santa Anita team of six giant Clydesdales into the arena on the final day of competition for the closing medal ceremony in front of a sold-out crowd of 35,000.
Despite concerns of smog and extreme heat, the skies were clear, the weather was beautiful, and the competitions went off without a hitch. Prince Philip was so happy that he sent Balch a letter afterwards saying that his experience with the Games at Santa Anita was by far the easiest and most rewarding of all five Olympics he had attended and participated in by that point.
“It was the only time that the organizers actually knew anything about horses,” he wrote. But it would not be the only time the world would know anything about Santa Anita and Arcadia.
Good Corporate Citizen
Since its founding, Santa Anita Park owners and managers have been exemplary community citizens in the City of Arcadia, donating many millions of dollars and supporting organizations such as the Arcadia chapter of the American Red Cross and, since 2000, providing the venue for Arcadia High School graduation ceremonies.
In the late 1940s the track was responsible for bringing the Metropolitan Opera to Los Angeles each spring.
Most of Arcadia’s City’s civic buildings in the late 1900s and 2000s, such as fire stations, City Council Chambers, Arcadia Public Library, and much of the police station were funded largely by tens of millions of dollars of revenue from Santa Anita.
— by Scott Hettrick