Because we Easterners think we reside at the center of the universe, events in the racing world this year have been shocking and disillusioning.
Throughout the history of the thoroughbred sport in America, the best horses, trainers and jockeys have always campaigned in New York and environs, sometimes moving to Florida in the winter. Championships were always decided at Belmont Park in the fall. Anyplace else was the bush leagues.
And yet the 1982 season has offered incontrovertible evidence that the great center of American racing has moved 3,000 miles to the West. This country's best thoroughbred competition is now here, at Santa Anita.
This didn't happen overnight, of course. For more than a decade, either Santa Anita or Hollywood Park has led the country in average daily attendance and handle. Easterners, of course, were not terribly impressed. Californians turn out in droves to see motocross racing, too.
The West Coast racing circuit was also attracting some of the country's best riders and trainers. The jockey colony here reads like a who's who of the profession -- Laffit Pincay Jr., Bill Shoemaker, Chris McCarron, Sandy Hawley. Two of the three most successful trainers of stakes horses in this country -- Laz Barrera and Charles Whittingham -- base their operations here.
Still, the Eastern chauvinists argued, California racing was inferior. The speed-crazy horses here run over sun-baked, lightning-fast tracks, and they run with the aid of legal drugs. When they ventured out of this fairyland into the real world -- the East -- they exposed their inferiority.
In 1982, this last indictment of California racing fell apart. The horses who ventured East proved beyond doubt how strong the racing is here. California horses won the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. California's Perrault won the country's richest race, the Budweiser Million. California horses captured all three legs of Belmont Park's fall championship series.
Objective Easterners are beginning to think that the West has the best of everything: the best horses, the best racing program, the best jockeys, the best trainers and the healthiest racing industry.
This state of affairs may surprise members of the Eastern establishment, but it probably would not have shocked Charles H. Strub. At the height of the Depression, he had the vision to build a grandiose race track in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Santa Anita opened on Christmas Day, 1934, drew respectable crowds even during those difficult times and then fulfilled Strub's most optimistic expectations during the postwar boom. The track's business has not stopped booming since.
The reason that California's horse population has become so strong is a matter of simple economics. The tracks here offer big purses -- and sometimes incredible purses, like the $811,400 for the Hollywood Futurity earlier this month. "Money makes the mare go," said Jimmy Kilroe, Santa Anita's vice president for racing, "and the money has been the incentive for owners to improve their stock and for foreign owners to bring their stock here."
Santa Anita can offer its big purses because it draws big crowds that bet so much money. And it attracts the biggest crowds in the country because . . . why?
The California tracks do not suffer from the abundance of parimutuel competition that exists in the racing-saturated East. They are aided by the temperate climate. But there must be other reasons for their spectacular success, and during the next three months I hope to discover what they are.
I was amazed, when the track opened on a Sunday when both Los Angeles pro football teams were playing at home, to find myself in the midst of a crowd of more than 69,000. It would be inconceivable to see such an outpouring of enthusiasm for thoroughbred racing anywhere else in the country. Clearly, racing people in the East have a lot to learn from the California tracks they once viewed with such condescension.