Western racing has progressed phenomenally in the last decade, and many Californians now have forgotten that the success of early Santa Anita meetings often depended largely on the glamour and excitement surrounding the invasion of eastern "big name" stables. The average caliber of western stock used to be so inferior to that of the Florida winter season that you were doing all right to discover 20 decent allowance horses on the grounds.
Today there is no dearth of top stock at Santa Anita. Western breeding has developed into a major industry, and equally significant is the rich offering of purses which this season will amount to a total distribution to horsemen of more than three and a quarter million dollars—including over a million in added money for 33 stakes, four of which are guaranteed to gross over $100,000 each.
There has, moreover, been another important trend in the West during recent seasons: more foreign-bred Thoroughbreds have been imported here than to any other part of the U.S. racing world. Dr. Charles H. Strub, executive vice-president and the real mastermind behind this beautiful and efficient plant in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, sees no mystery in the trend. "We are a progressive track, and the reason we have so many foreign horses here is because we make more of an effort to bring them in."
Californians, despite an intense pride in their ability to produce top products within the state, are also notoriously big spenders for any out-of-state product that catches their fancy. In past seasons some of the biggest names in the history of Santa Anita racing—like Kayak II, Miche, Noor, St. Vincent and Talon—belonged to foreign-bred horses.
"Today," says Racing Secretary Jimmy Kilroe, "people are looking to buy a 'ready-made' horse to supplement their stock of California-breds. This is not easy to do, and in fact about the only way you can pick up a 'made' horse is to spend a great deal of money for top stock when a successful owner either dies or has a major dispersal sale. The natural place to turn, then, is the foreign market where owners are looking for American capital."
As far as horse racing is concerned, the West is more international-minded than the East, as is clearly shown in the extensive and still-growing program of races over the comparatively new Camino Real Turf Course. Such objectives as the mile-and-three-quarters $100,000 San Juan Capistrano are a natural target for foreign distance specialists who find, for the most part, an easy transition from conditions in Europe, or Australia—or, more recently, South America.
There are other exciting impressions to be gained at Santa Anita at this stage of the season. There is, for instance, a fine-looking crop of 3-year-olds whose performances, however, lack the luster attached to such Hialeah residents as Barbizon, Bold Ruler, Federal Hill, Gallant Man, Ambehaving, Amarullah, Gen. Duke, King Hairan and Missile. Quite possibly the best colts in training here for the 3-year-old classics are Blue Spruce, Grand Tudor and Prince Khaled. Normally California Kid and Nashville would be included in this group, but Mish Tenney, who trains California Kid for Rex Ellsworth, says his colt is about three weeks behind in his training and probably won't make the Santa Anita Derby on March 2. Nashville, Llangollen Farm's top 2-year-old candidate a year ago, tailed off after his poor showing in the Garden State and won't be hurried even for a Kentucky Derby appearance. But this doesn't bother Trainer Charles Whittingham too much because he also has Blue Spruce, a late developing green sort of colt now rounding into such satisfactory form that both Whittingham and Owner Mrs. Richard Lunn rate him the best of the crop.
Two of the best older horses on the grounds, Holandes II and Master Boing, show signs of turning into exceptional racers, and Holandes, rated off his most recent winning performance, is the current choice for the big Santa Anita Handicap on Feb. 23. Bob Roberts, who trains him for a triumvirate composed of himself and Donald Wood and Carl de Benedette (the purchase price paid to an Argentinian owner was $100,000), is quite convinced that the 4-year-old South American is capable of running two miles and packing plenty of weight too. Master Boing, who represented France while winning last fall's Washington International at Laurel, is here largely to take advantage of the turf course program. Bought by Texan Nelson Hunt, he will at least have a compatriot in the saddle, for the great Australian jockey, Rae Johnstone—now a resident of France—is wintering at Santa Anita, partly to enjoy a vacation and partly to see what he and Master Boing can do in the Handicap and Capistrano. Johnstone, known to Frenchmen as "the crocodile" for the famous strategy he employs in coming up from behind and snapping his opposition at the wire, is a remarkable man. One of the real internationalists of sport, Rae admits to being 51 years old. Peeking out from behind an upturned polo coat and puffing sophisticatedly on a long cigaret holder on a cold afternoon last week, Johnstone summed up his riding mission briefly. "Yes, it's true I've ridden in 12 countries and been a winner in 10. I hope to make it 11 by winning over here. Master Boing has been training well and looks fit and all that, but the only thing that counts is how he does in competition. I expect I'll ride him this week [Feb. 2], and if I'm pleased with him I'll stay on to ride in the big races. Otherwise I'll return to France in short order."
Other handicap horses that will be heard from in the weeks ahead are Robert Lehman's Count of Honor and Traffic Judge, who was purchased from the estate of the late Clifford Mooers by Lou Doherty and E. Barry Ryan; and, of course, old campaigners like Mister Gus and Porterhouse. "If Hialeah seems to have the best of the 3-year-olds this season," says Jimmy Kilroe, "Santa Anita definitely has a whole body of useful horses and probably a better over-all standard than ever before."
Some of the most useful—although unfortunately not the best—turned out last Saturday for the 10th running of the $100,000 added Santa Anita Maturity. There were 12 starters in this mile-and-a-quarter run over a track which was slippery and slick, and the best credentials were carried by Llangollen Farm's Social Climber and C. V. Whitney's entry of Head Man and Born Mighty. But a lot of others went in anyway, some because they had seen Social Climber whipped in his last start and some because in this race the rewards to the second, third and fourth horses were $30,000, $20,000 and $10,000. Among those who said he entered for the latter reason was Lou Rowan, president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. Rowan's entry, a chestnut gelding by Cover Up named Spinney, hadn't tried going a mile and a quarter since he was beaten 21 lengths by Count of Honor last July at Hollywood Park. Well, maybe it was the fact that he was a year older, but most likely it was some expert training by Reggie Cornell—but, at any rate, at the finish there was Spinney by nearly two lengths over the King Ranch's Beam Rider. The heavy favorite Social Climber was fourth. Later a smiling, jubilant Rowan confided that "I thought he'd win the race, but I didn't dare tell anyone." He sure didn't. Spinney paid $51.80.
SWAPS TO STUD
No report of California racing doings would be complete without a word or two on the recovery of Swaps, who came so very close to death following a double linear fracture of his left hind leg last fall. Swaps, at the moment, is back at home on the Ellsworth Ranch at Chino. He is being ponied (a riderless jog accompanied by a pony) between a mile and a half and two miles a day and is, says his trainer, Mish Tenney, "slightly spoiled but very cheerful." The plans for him call for a limited breeding season in 1957—his book has not been announced but will probably include several of the good mares purchased from the Aga Khan last year.
Naturally there is considerable interest in whether or not Swaps is to return to the races. "Well, I'll say this," commented Tenney. "We don't know if he will come back, but I'm convinced he would be capable of coming back. If this was the case, however, he wouldn't return to action until 1958. It ordinarily takes about 90 days to get a horse back in racing form, but with Swaps it might take four to five months. In any case, no decision will be made until we see what results he has at stud. One thing about this horse. It is native with him to be clever and he does everything very neatly."
This comment set me to wondering if Tenney was reneging slightly on his widely quoted comment of two years ago to the effect that horses have no intelligence whatsoever. "That's not so," replied Mish. "I said a horse is a dumb brute, I still think a horse is a dumb brute, but Swaps is a clever dumb brute."
THE HANDICAPPER, Santa Anita's (and New York's) Jimmy Kilroe, has foreign intrigue added to weight-leveling job.
THE CROCODILE, talking at Epsom Downs track to France's leading owner, Marcel Boussac, rides this week on coast.