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Saturday, July 26, 2003
On April 29, I posted a rememberance of my youth among the huge crowds at Santa Anita. (I can't link to it because Blogger's link is down, but you can scroll down to see the post.) With the decline of horse racing as a spectator sport, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, the two major racecourses in the Los Angeles area, now draw only a handful of people to their vast grandstands.

On the silver screen this week, however, in Seabiscuit, you can see a different Santa Anita. This Santa Anita was the most popular track in America during the years immediately preceding World War II. Indeed, after being used during the war as a waystation for Japanese and Japanese-Americans being sent to concentration camps, Santa Anita returned to host more huge crowds in the postwar era. Hollywood Park became hugely popular too, and one of the two would lead the nation in average attendance every year well in the 1980's.

Much is said about the importance of the racehorse Seabiscuit-- he provided a vessel for the hopes of a nation mired in the great Depression and in the runup to another world war. He popularized sports broadcasting, as his races would gain larger radio audiences than the President's "fireside chats". His owner, trainer, and jockey overcame adversity to achieve immortality through his exploits. And he won two of the most important races in American history-- his 1938 match race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral at Pimlico, in which he surprised most of racing's East Coast establishment by shipping east and beating what was thought to be a superhorse; and the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, which Seabiscuit won over the previous year's winner (Kayak II), after being a frustrated loser of two nose-and-nose photo finishes in 1937 and 1938 (the latter to a lucky three year old carrying absurdly light weight), and after missing the 1939 race due to injury.

Laura Hillenbrand, who authored the book that the new film is based on, does a fine job of telling those well-known elements of Seabiscuit's story. But I grew up hearing a very different Seabiscuit story. It is the story that was told by Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar (the beautiful seaside racetrack north of San Diego). Seabiscuit, to Southern California, is more than just an amazing horse. Seabiscuit was California's first equine superstar-- indeed, one of the state's first true superstars in any professional sport.

It's hard to believe now, given that we have five baseball teams, three football teams, four basketball teams, and three hockey teams in the state, but for a long time, California had an inferiority complex in sports (as it did in many other things, such as high culture). We were way, way, out of the loop. New York, not Las Vegas, was the great boxing mecca. Baseball didn't have a team west of St. Louis. College football's great teams were in the midwest, such as Fielding Yost's "point a minute" Michigan Wolverines, Red Grange's Illinois Fighting Illini, and Knute Rockne's Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Hockey was not a major sport in the United States (and in any event, was another East / Midwest sport), and basketball and pro football were not major sports period. And horse racing was the province of New York (Belmont, Aqueduct, Jamaica, Saratoga), Maryland (Havre de Grace, Pimlico), Kentucky (Churchill, Latonia, Keeneland), and Florida (Hialeah).

San Francisco had been an established city since the gold rush, but had been devestated by a horrible earthquake and fire. Los Angeles had just started to grow due to the increasing popularity of the motion picture industry. The first crack in the armor was in college football-- California's teams, coached by Andy Smith, and USC's teams, coached by Howard Jones, became national powers. Jones smartly arranged an annual game against Notre Dame that became college football's greatest intersectional rivalry, and frequently got his team into the annual Rose Bowl game in Pasadena where he could showcase his teams against top teams from the east and midwest.

But the first professional athlete to break through was Seabiscuit. When Seabiscuit won his match race against War Admiral in 1938, California was a decade away from getting its first NFL team, two decades away from getting its first baseball and basketball teams, and almost three decades away from getting its first NHL teams. It was a decidedly minor league state. Seabiscuit was the first professional athlete that announced that perhaps California was not the boondocks of professional sports-- that California would be a force to be reckoned with.

Moreover, Seabiscuit simply made Southern Californians crazy about horse racing. Santa Anita opened to a small crowd in December 1934. The owner of the track, Charles Strub, had a lot of money (the track cost the then-unfathomable sum of $1 million to build), and put up $100,000 (tied for the largest purse for a horse race ever at the time) as a prize for his big handicap race in order to draw great east coast horses. The first renewal of the race drew Equipoise and Twenty Grand, two of the greatest horses of the era, along with triple crown race winners Faireno and Head Play. Commencing a tradition that Californians would proudly reenact from time to time over the years, the vaunted easterners all got beat-- a lightly regarded former steeplechaser named Azucar won the race.

But the Santa Anita Handicap was more of a curiosity than a great event-- until Seabiscuit came along. Seabiscuit became a crowd favorite in March 1937 and March 1938 by losing the rich race twice, both times by a nose, to Rosemont (a really good horse) and Stagehand (a three year old who carried 100 pounds, 30 less than Seabiscuit and about eight pounds less than just about any longshot ever carries in a modern handicap race). He then went to Hollywood Park, which opened in 1938 and needed a name attraction for its big race, the Hollywood Gold Cup. Seabiscuit won that race after making up a huge deficit in the stretch to a good speed horse, Specify. A huge crowd packed the new track to see him do it.

Seabiscuit cristened Del Mar too. In the summer of 1938, after the planned War Admiral match race fell through because of an injury to Seabiscuit (it would later be run in November), Seabiscuit was looking for a race, and Del Mar's owner, Bing Crosby, was looking for a way to promote his track. Crosby proposed running his horse, Ligaroti, against Seabiscuit in a match race. Traffic piled back 30 miles north, as the seaside track was packed with a crowd that would stand many years as its record attendance. Seabiscuit and Ligaroti raced head and head all the way around the racetrack, and their jockeys actually got into a fight in the stretch during the race and were flailing back and forth with each other. Seabiscuit won the race by a nose.

Finally, when Seabiscuit came back and won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, he drew over 65,000 people to Santa Anita. By this time, Californians were hooked. They were betting absurd sums of over $100,000 (in the middle of the great depression!) on every race. Heaven knows how many of those people first came out to a California track because the great Seabiscuit, California's biggest athletic star, the hero of the nation, the most famous horse in the world, was running. Certainly there was no other venue in all of California where one could see anyone of such cultural importance. But what we do know is that the afterglow of Seabiscuit lasted some 50 years. It is only since 1991 or so, when the sport really went into a tailspin, when the crowds have finally thinned out.

I really don't know if California racing would have succeeded without Seabiscuit. Certainly Santa Anita and Hollywood Park have never missed an opportunity to acknowledge Seabiscuit's influence. To this day, there is one statue, of one horse, on the Santa Anita grounds. That statue is of the horse that brought people to the track like no other: Seabiscuit.

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