On Saturday, 13 horses at Santa Anita will break from the starting gate in the richest race in the Western Hemisphere. The $5 million purse for the Breeders' Cup Classic is more than twice as much the Kentucky Derby's; more, in fact, than the three Triple Crown races combined.
The Classic is the big dog in the 14-race Breeders' Cup horse fest, and starting Friday, the big-money action at the iconic SoCal track sharpens global focus on a sport more complicated than nuclear fission, more fractious than the U.S. Congress and more winsome than Halle Berry.
For most fans of racing, like those of other sports, it's all about the game, not the preparation. We want to see Blake Griffin taking it to Pau Gasol, not taking it off the glass over and over in rebound drills. If you like to see Game On Dude go nose-to-nose with Mucho Macho Man, you should see Howard Zucker go hand-to-nose with Bosserette, the fetching, slightly loony chestnut filly who eats wintergreen Lifesavers out of his palm in her stall at 7 a.m.
Zucker is one of about 100 trainers domiciled at Santa Anita during the current meet, which ends the day after the Cup, on Sunday. He's one of thousands of workers responsible for creating the race-day product of pageantry, wagering and speed. If a top-tier Thoroughbred race is a swan gracefully plying calm waters, back-of-the house workers are the feet madly paddling below the surface to sustain the image.
Much of what makes Santa Anita--any first-rate track--a great race place happens while you're still in your REM cycle. Like dairy cows that must be milked twice a day, every day, racehorses are high-maintenance, $100-a-day livestock that daily must be fed, exercised, groomed and scrutinized from the ends of their ears to the heels of their hooves. They are as fragile as Donald Trump's ego, and as moody as the weather in Scotland. They don't have an entourage, they have an army, and for a couple of early mornings last week, I marched alongside, equipped with a pair of rubber boots and a keen sense of equine volatility.
The business of horse racing is a mess--crowds are diminishing, and nobody envies its demographics; Indian casinos have compromised its gambling mojo; racing management is reactive, not visionary. Put two horsemen in a room and get six different opinions on drugs, track surfaces, claiming rules and where the hell they're going to put the horses evicted from their barns when Hollywood Park closes at the end of the year.
If the daily backside routine seems disconnected from the front office, it's inseparably anchored to the rhythm of life. By 4:45, the first horses have hit the practice track. Some days it's so foggy you wonder how the clockers timing the workouts can even see the horses, much less tell one from the other. It's spooky, as if Santa Anita has celestial pull sufficient to dress a Halloween set.
Some days it's so sunny that the jockeys' agents clustered at Clockers' Corner are texting one-handed and shielding their screens with the other. Located at the west end of the grandstand, down by the final turn, Clockers' Corner is where jockeys, exercise riders, trainers and everybody else grabs breakfast and schmoozes, and where crews record advance pieces for race-day broadcast on HRTV ("The network for horse sports. All Day, All Night, All Horses!").
As a student at Arcadia High, Scott McClellan would hang out at Santa Anita before and after school. He got his license at 17, and 10 minutes after graduation was a full-time jockey's agent. That was 42 years ago, and he's still hustling rides for his riders. On this day, he was at Santa Anita at 5:45, Hollywood Park at 6:30 and by 8:30 was back at Santa Anita (it was Saturday; traffic wasn't an issue), where his guy, Joe Talamo, had six mounts for the afternoon's races. He won twice that day, placed twice, and at this writing, was ranked third as measured by money won.
Later, Santa Anita Staff Writer Ed Golden was lingering in the hallway outside the racing secretary's office. He's responsible for compiling the daily media tip sheet (if you believe track writers do all their own research you also believe the moon landing was faked), and ran into an agent who wanted him to know that his jock was back in town. That day, Golden's "Stable Notes" concluded with: "Agent Dudley (Dooright) Osborne said Orlando Mojica returns to ride at Santa Anita Thursday after winning 50 races at Indiana Downs where he is seventh in the standings . . . How 'bout them Dodgers? Publicity Director Mike Willman has three words for Yasiel Puig: 'Arizona Instructional League.'"
Zucker Racing Stables is a small operation of nine horses, but in his 40 years of training, Zucker has stabled as many as 18. A big operation might have 100. He's got no mounts in the Breeders' Cup races, but Bosserette won a race last week, which--full disclosure--put some cash in my pocket. I bet on her not because I'm an astute handicapper, but because I admire her dietary preferences. Te Rapa, Bosserette's stablemate, has finished in the money several times this year, at Santa Anita, Del Mar and Hollywood Park.
Zucker started his career on the East Coast. He moved west in the early 1980s as the trainer for two young friends who started a racing operation called Knot Two Stable. ("And they weren't," Zucker said.) One of them was Jim Buss, who, with his sister Jeanie, now runs their daddy's L.A. sporting empire.
With so few horses to train, Zucker has time to be the hands-on guy he's wired to be. Even with four full-time employees, and a part-time intern majoring in animal science at Cal Poly Pomona, he hasn't had a vacation since the Clinton administration. His business, he said, has "been in the red for the last four years, just to pay for the privilege of getting up early 365 days a year."
He's concerned, of course, about his viability, but there's no sign of regret from the guy with the Brooklyn accent and degree in economics and finance from City College of New York. After graduation, he worked a few months for an insurance company, then, he said, "ran away and joined the circus."
Some of the grooms and hot walkers live at the stables, and there are almost as many dogs here as there are horses. Lots of residents have pets, even the athletes. Some tetchy horses are calmed by sharing their stall with a goat. Sometimes, the horse and goat get so attached to each other that when the former leaves to exercise, the latter bleats so much the workers start researching recipes for goat stew.
Hot walker Angelo Rivera works for trainer Jeff Mullins, and he lives here with his Chihuahua puppy, Leonidis. Grooms in his barn, he said, have goats and a pig; having lived on his grandparents' ranch, he's fine with that. In fact, he's fine with any animal. Like every barn body, he's been bitten and kicked by his charges. "It hurts," he said, "but not that bad. Horses don't intend to do real damage, they just get grumpy. If a horse wanted, he could really hurt you; they don't."
Two or three times a day, Zucker said, the lights flash and the "loose horse" alarm sounds. When we heard it, he pulled me to the side of the barn path and froze. A moment later, a Thoroughbred devoid of rider screamed through the gap between the track and the barns, and wheeled hard left like the wild animal it was. He knew where he lived, and that's where he was going as fast as possible. He might not have wanted to hurt you, but if you got in his way, he would.
Horses who aren't cared for properly are more likely to act out. They can't tell you what's wrong, and some people wouldn't listen anyway. As he prepared nine breakfasts, Zucker dumped a human dietary supplement called Calm Spirit into Bosserette's pail "because," he explained, "she always seems unhappy." Rubber ball toys in her stall help her vent, and the Lifesavers not only taste good, they serve a salutary social purpose.
Most track rituals serve the needs of its animal stars. Like toddlers, racehorses don't like disruptions in their routine. Before they race at an unfamiliar track, the new arrivals are "schooled" by their grooms--they're walked from the barns along the path to the walking ring, the saddling paddock, the receiving barn.
That building has a shameful human history: In 1942, 19,000 Japanese-Americans were processed through Santa Anita before being reassigned to inland internment camps; the horse stalls in the receiving barn served as barracks.
Today, before every race, it's where horses have their blood drawn and tested. After the race, the winner, any beaten favorites and a few random racers are taken to the rear of the barn for more blood, as well as urine, tests. Which raises the question: How do you get pee from a horse?
Usually, they need to relieve themselves after a race, but from an early age they're Pavlovianly conditioned--when their handlers see them urinating, they whistle. Soon, a whistle results in a reflexive relief response.
That's not exactly how the tour guide I overheard explained it. "We have to collect urine samples," she told the group inside the receiving barn. "We have to teach our horses to go to the restroom on command." Enter a carpenter who had to repair some stables. Said the guide, "He liked to whistle while he worked."
"Do you know how bad it smells when three or four horses go to the bathroom at the same time?"
By late morning, the last horses were getting their post-workout baths. A groom was hosing water over one black beauty, the sunlight rendering his glistening haunches almost metallic. He turned his blaze face toward me, and offered an astonishing blue-eyed gaze.
Photos: Ellen Alperstein