On Track With Johnny D: A Most Trying Season

To say that this has been one of the most trying seasons in the history of beautiful Santa Anita Park would be accurate. This winter, beneath a persistent dark cloud, the place I fell in love with as a teenager and where I spent early mornings, afternoons and evenings for 30 years, has struggled.

Friends, acquaintances and families employed at The Great Race Place wondered what the future might hold. Drowned by Ark-worthy rain, rocked by an extraordinary series of equine injury and death, picketed by animal rights groups, threatened by politicians and investigated by the Los Angeles district attorney, the Arcadia, California gem, positioned at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains and regarded as one of the most majestic racing emporiums worldwide, operated under a pall of sadness and uncertainty.

The magnificent lady has known sorrow before. During World War II, Santa Anita Park served as a major internment camp for those of Japanese descent that had been rounded up following the attack on Pearl Harbor. According to Stephanie K. Baer in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Santa Anita Park, or as it was then known Santa Anita Assembly Center, “…housed more than 19,000 people from across Southern California and as far north as Salinas for several months in 1942 while more permanent camps were being built. The temporary camp was the largest and longest-occupied of all the assembly centers and was the only center to run a camouflage net factory, according to Densho, a nonprofit organization documenting Japanese-American history.”

Just over two years ago, more than 200 Japanese-American men, women and children gathered at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles for a 75-year reunion of, “…those who were temporarily detained at Santa Anita Park before being shipped to War Relocation Authority camps in Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Manzanar, California; Poston, Arizona; Rohwer, Arkansas and other desolate areas of the country.”

According to Baer, sitting around tables in the central hall at the museum, which sits on the site of one of the pickup points where Japanese-Americans were ordered to report to be bused to the camps, old friends shared stories of their camp time and sang 1940s songs over bento boxes and manju.

“It’s about being part of a community,” said June Aochi Berk, one of the organizers of what may have been the last reunion of those who were forced to live in horse stalls and barracks at the Arcadia racetrack. “We all shared an experience together and we like to remember friends who are no longer with us and reconnect with old friends.”

One of those ‘old friends’ was Toshi Ito, then 92, mother of Judge Lance Ito who famously presided over the O.J. Simpson murder case. She was interned along with her mother and father and donated a pair of wooden geta or Japanese clogs that were manufactured and used at Santa Anita to the Smithsonian museum.

The war years were difficult for everyone and Santa Anita, obviously, was closed for racing from 1942 through 1945. This year the track was shut down from March 5 until March 29 as experts investigated everything from racetrack maintenance to medication and veterinarian procedures for answers. No single culprit was located. Most likely, from this chair, a ‘perfect storm’ of factors, triggered by torrential rains, combined to cause an inordinate number of equine injuries and deaths.

Monday’s Santa Anita Memorial Day holiday racing card was one of the season’s best. It offered quality as well as quantity and challenged horseplayers to find winners in competitive fields. The heart of the card included three Grade 1 races worth $500,000 each: Gamely, for fillies and mares at a mile and one-eighth on turf; Gold Cup at Santa Anita, at a mile and one-quarter and Shoemaker Mile at one mile on turf.

Vasilika, who apparently loves Santa Anita as much as I do, registered her 11th victory in 12 starts over the Arcadia green to take the Gamely! She’s now also won 6 out of 8 at the mile and one-eighth distance. Amazingly, she was claimed by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer for just $40,000 a little over a year ago. Chad Brown-trained Rymska, winner of 7 of 14 and over $708k before Monday, invaded from New York and chased Vasilika home.

In the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, tables were turned as east topped west. Todd Pletcher-trained Vino Rosso outlasted heavily-favored local Gift Box. The latter was on a 3-race winning streak that included the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and was unbeaten at Santa Anita in two outings. Vino Rosso appears to be living up to 3-year-old promise that saw him win the Grade 2 Wood Memorial and finish a close third in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. He’s a welcome addition to the older male dirt division.

The Shoemaker Mile, which included a notable roster of accomplished and formful runners, produced a shocking upset when Bolo went wire to wire to win convincingly at 30-1 odds. Always highly regarded, Bolo previously won the Grade 2 Arcadia and was second in the Kilroe Mile…in 2016! A year later, Bolo successfully defended his Arcadia title for his last win until Monday’s Shoemaker. Off nearly two years, Bolo had raced just once this year, setting the pace in a mile and one-eighth allowance/optional claiming race before fading to fifth.

That Breeders’ Cup is scheduled to be run at Santa Anita in November is encouraging to connections of these three stakes winners--although Vasilika is not nominated and would need to be supplemented at a large number.

That Bolo, at age 7, could return off one race in two years to win one of the nation’s most coveted Grade 1 grass events is remarkable and a tribute to everyone involved—owners, trainer, grooms, farmhands, veterinarians, etc. In a season where horse care, health and safety has been front and center, particularly at this track, Bolo delivered a shining moment that stands in juxtaposition to previous tragedy. That he did it on Memorial Day—when we traditionally honor fallen military—at a place so meaningfully touched by war is notable.

Cynics will argue that Bolo is an exception, a singular example of a horse who survived where some others didn’t. I suggest a different view. Exceptional? Yes, Bolo’s achievement absolutely is that. Singular example? Not at all. He’s just the other side of the coin. The part you never hear about where Thoroughbred racehorses are treated very well. HBO’s Real Sports won’t produce that piece. A blatant ‘hit job’ they’ll do. ‘Fluff’ they avoid. After all, who wants to see horses being bathed, groomed, fed, bedded, shod, petted, walked, etc? Boring! But that’s what really goes on ‘behind the scenes’ at a racetrack. Trust me, I’ve seen it. Daily. For decades.

Yes, this has been one of the most trying seasons in the history of beautiful Santa Anita Park. But the grand dam has cried before. Monday, beneath the bright sunshine of a clear Southern California spring afternoon, as Bolo galloped freely, wire-to-wire across her fresh green lawn, she again cried. This time tears of joy. And she was not alone.

Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: A Most Trying Season

On Track with Johnny D |