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California, here we are!

Good weather, the best purses in the country and the right kind of track surface make Santa Anita a haven for "imports," among them Derby prospect J. O. Tobin

The Wednesday feature race at Santa Anita was the $45,450 El Encino Stakes for 4-year-old fillies that had never won at a distance of a mile or beyond for a purse of $15,000. Eleven runners stepped into the starting gate ready to go 1[1/16] miles or, as the program didactically noted, "about 1,700 meters." The past performances showed that five of them were bred in California, three in Kentucky and one in Florida; the two others were from England and Argentina.

The crowd of 20,133 made the Argentine filly, Lucie Manet, the 6-5 favorite while allowing the English entrant, Woodsome, to drift out to 19-1. Woodsome, however, beat Lucie by nearly four lengths to become one of the early favorites for the $100,000 La Cañada Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 13. The Argentines got even in the next day's feature when Star Ball beat Vagabonda, a horse that had been campaigned in Europe until last year. Things like that have been happening at Santa Anita lately.

Since opening its 40th season on Dec. 28, the track has taken on a distinctly foreign tinge. Through last Saturday, of the races carrying purses of $20,000 or more, horses either bred or campaigned abroad had won a third. California horseplayers barely had their chairs dusted off for the start of the new season when three "foreign" horses won on opening day, and on the afternoon that Woodsome took the El Encino, two other imports were also winners.

Early nominees for the Charles H. Strub Stakes on Feb. 6, the first $100,000 race of 1977, include a dozen foreign-bred runners. And as Santa Anita moves toward its April 10 closing, more and more outstanding foreign horses will be invading the track that bills itself as "America's Great Race Place."

What is happening at Santa Anita has been evolving for the past few years and is one of the most striking developments in thoroughbred racing in this country in decades. It is certain to change the thinking of those fans who have felt that imported horses couldn't outrun a feed bill. Nothing used to drive a horseplayer insane faster than a set of past performances from tracks named Ayr (Scotland), Haydock Park (England), Hipico de Santiago (Chile), Monterrico (Peru), Evry (France), The Curragh (Ireland) or Palermo (South America). Californians now face that problem every day.

"Of the 11 top horses on the grounds," says Santa Anita's racing vice-president, Jimmy Kilroe, "six were either bred abroad or raced there. And that's just among the males. When you look at the fillies and mares in the highest classifications, half of the top ones have foreign backgrounds. I would say conservatively that at least one quarter of the good horses we have on the grounds have similar patterns in that they were either raced abroad after having been bred in the United States or were bred abroad and purchased to bring to this country to race. The impact will become even more evident now that our rainy season seems to have passed and we can schedule more races on the grass, which is the surface many foreign horses prefer. The whole trend should be for the overall good of U.S. racing. More stars should develop because of these horses being brought here. And we do need stars."

Kilroe is quick to notice racing's trends as well as its problems, and when he says the invaders are good, they are at least all of that; this season horses from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Ireland, England and France have won at Santa Anita.

The kind of star Kilroe hopes for may turn out to be a 3-year-old colt from England named J. O. Tobin.

Two weeks ago, on a near-perfect California afternoon, a blue-and-white van marked CALIFORNIA TURF EXPRESS pulled up in front of Barn 5 in Santa Anita's stable area. Johnny Adams, a Hall of Fame jockey who rode for 24 years before turning his hand to training, watched the unloading process intently. "All morning long I been as anxious as a hen sitting on her nest," he said. "I been waiting for this horse to arrive from the farm up north. This horse is something special."

As Adams spoke, a black, leggy colt walked down a ramp and began digging up puffs of sand with his hooves. This was J. O. Tobin. Tobin last year won all three of his starts in England and is considered one of the best young runners in the world. But instead of going for the Epsom Derby in England he will now be prepared at Santa Anita for the Kentucky Derby.

Tobin was bred in Kentucky and sent abroad for his 2-year-old campaign, which consisted of those three wins in England and a loss in France. His return to this country could not have come at a better time for California racing because California, which did not send a representative to the 1976 Kentucky Derby, may not have too many good Derby-age horses this year either, and an import is better than nothing.

J. O. Tobin, a son of Never Bend, is owned by George Pope of San Francisco, who also owned the 1962 Derby winner, Decidedly. Last week Tobin, named for a 99-year-old friend of Pope's, was starting to gallop over the Santa Anita track in the mornings, getting himself ready to race, though his first start is at least a month away.

Santa Anita's racing secretary, Lou Eilkin, can hardly wait. The other day he was reading Timeform, a British publication that rates the performances of British racers. When he got to J. O. Tobin he read aloud: "...proved himself the best English-trained 2-year-old; most impressive in Champagne Stakes at Don-caster, leading one furlong out and then lengthening his stride in tremendous fashion, with his jockey sitting motionless to draw four lengths clear." A smile came over Eilkin's face. "That's strong stuff for the British," he said. "If he's that good we should be in for a lot of fun."

In a nearby barn, Trainer Tom Pratt ran his index finger over a blackboard nailed up next to his office. After counting his stock he said, "Of the 38 horses I have, 21 were either bred abroad or raced there. Yet this one here, Miss Toshiba, probably started the whole thing. When she was going good, people abroad took notice of her." Last summer Miss Toshiba had four wins in a row at Hollywood Park, including the $112,200 Vanity Handicap and the $54,800 Wilshire Handicap. She had been sent to the U.S. from England by Robert Sangster, an owner who has a nice little operation going for him over there: he runs one of the largest of his country's soccer betting pools.

While Miss Toshiba certainly helped Pratt get more invaders into his sheds, it also seemed that last year imports were popping up all over California—and winning, a trend that has continued strongly into this year. On the second weekend of this Santa Anita meeting, an Argentine mare named Merry Lady III rolled over a muddy track to take the $58,700 San Gorgonio Handicap by an impressive 2½ lengths. Merry Lady had been good in Argentina, with five wins in eight races, but her San Gorgonio check of $36,200 more than tripled what she had earned down below. Merry Lady was brought to this country by Trainer Henry Moreno, who last year had great success with another Argentine named Bastonera II. That one ran second to Proud Delta in the Eclipse Award voting for the top older female in competition in 1976. Before that, Moreno had imported Tizna from Chile, and Tizna won seven stakes races at Santa Anita alone. "There are still good horses to be bought in Argentina," Moreno says, "and with the kind of luck I've had, I'm going to keep on buying them and bringing them here."

The biggest foreign star to emerge last year was King Pellinore, now a 5-year-old. Bred in Kentucky and good enough to win four of seven races in England as a 2- and 3-year-old, King Pellinore was bought by the Cardiff Stock Farm for a reported $1 million, won $463,390 last season in California and was voted the second-best male horse to Forego. "King Pellinore certainly didn't hurt the trend any," says Trainer Charlie Whittingham. Nor did the success of Caucasus, the winner of $200,255, or Riot In Paris, which won $299,250.

Santa Anita has long had a moderate foreign accent. In 1935 the track established the sport's first $100,000 stakes race, the Santa Anita Handicap, and superior horses were shipped in from all over the U.S. for it. Top Row and Equipoise were there. So were Twenty Grand, Faireno, Mate and 15 others. But the winner was Azucar, an ex-steeplechaser bred in England, which paid off at 12-1. In 1939 everyone thought the state's favorite horse, Seabiscuit, would finally win "The Big 'Cap" after twice failing, but he turned up lame and had to be scratched. His stablemate, Kayak II from Argentina, won in his stead for owner Charles S. Howard. (The next year, when Seabiscuit did get his 'Cap, he had to beat Kayak II.)

Racing's most celebrated series of races between two outstanding horses. Citation and Noor, started at Santa Anita with Noor beating Citation twice. Noor was from Ireland. Cougar II, one of California's biggest stars, was from Chile. Even Johnny Longden, the gnarled rider who went merrily on until the age of 59, was bred in England, and last year when Bill Shoemaker rode his 7,000th winner it was on an English-bred horse named Royal Derby II.

Last week King Pellinore was out on the track for a workout at 6:45 one morning under Whittingham's supervision. Whittingham has trained the winners of some 40 races worth $100,000 or more, several of them imports. "One of the main reasons foreign horses are brought to California to race," Whittingham said, "is because of the number of good races on grass that carry both prestige and money value. The old saying is that it is harder to go from grass to dirt than from dirt to grass, but it can be done with patience. You have to be willing to spend the time and not go crazy. Horses from Europe take some time getting themselves adjusted to running on dirt. King Pellinore proved that, and so did Riot In Paris."

Last year Riot In Paris, bred in Kentucky, stepped off the grass and onto the dirt and started earning large checks. Word of his success spread, and many Americans who race horses in foreign countries began thinking about returning to the U.S. "The reasons we have so many foreign horses here now are many," says Kilroe. "Our weather is exactly like the weather in Chile so we get horses here from that country. As far as England is concerned we have good grass racing for higher purse values and that works in our favor. Also, at this time of the year there isn't much major racing in England.

"Underneath all this, of course, is one plain fact of economics. The price of buying a horse at a yearling sale these days keeps going up and up. It is almost impossible to buy a proven horse in this country. If an owner sees a horse abroad that he likes—one that has ability—he can pay $200,000 or so for it, bring it to this country and win himself out if his judgment proves to be correct. There is also something else that is working in our favor. The French Jockey Club has made it known that it doesn't want horses not bred in France to run in their major races. That's going to help us as time goes on."

California racing got news last weekend that still more foreign horses will be coming. Miss Toshiba's owner, Robert Sangster, announced that he had made a deal with Vincent O'Brien, the Irish trainer who has conditioned more European classic winners than any man in history, and international breeder Jack Mulcahy. The three of them plan to race horses in England and Ireland as 2- and 3-year-olds, then pick those they think would adapt best and send them to California, where the weather is perfect, the tracks excellent and the purses exceedingly high.


Derby colt J. O. Tobin (above) came back from England. King Pellinore made the trip last year.


Merry Lady III (left) has won more at Santa Anita this year than she ever did in Argentina. English-bred Red Regent is one of Tom Pratt's hopefuls.