California racing fans, like Californians in general, are a special breed.
In fact, of all the differences between racing in the West and the East, the most striking contrast is provided by the people--the sheer number of people at the tracks here. In an era when most racetracks are struggling to attract customers, 59,830 showed up at Santa Anita last Friday, lured by a special promotion. On both Saturday and Sunday, the attendance exceeded 40,000. Belmont Park can't draw such crowds for its biggest races of the year.
Who are these horseplayers? And what is Santa Anita doing to attract them that other tracks aren't?
When Charles Strub founded this track in the middle of the Depression, he attempted to populate it with movie stars and assorted celebrities to convey the impression that Santa Anita was an "in" place. The track's aggressive self-promotion over the years has succeeded.
"People here consider going to the track the way they would consider going to the ball game or the beach," said Alan Balch, Santa Anita's director of marketing. "You don't have to hang your head in shame if you say, 'I went to the races.' "
Santa Anita has the physical facilities to lure large numbers of people who are not hard-core bettors. Its greatest asset is its spacious, well-developed infield, which was designed to appeal to familiies and casual fans. There is a play area for children, a wine bar to attract young people, plenty of open space for picnics or Frisbee-throwing. The larger numbers of recreational racegoers change the whole character of the place. "We have a hard-core race crowd, too," said Balch, "but they're not as visible because they're camouflaged by all the families and the children."
Nothing demonstrates the special nature of the fans here more clearly than the George Woolf Award. Imagine if the New York Racing Association asked fans at Aqueduct to vote for a jockey of high character who has brought "credit to himself and the sport." They might get 20 ballots, 19 of which contained obscenities directed at Angel Cordero. But this winter, when Santa Anita conducted balloting for the annual Woolf Award, 180,000 people filled out ballots and thousands watched the ceremony to honor the winner, Marco Castenada. They're fans here, not just players.
It might seem that a crowd like this would bet with such a lack of sophistication that a good handicapper here should clean up. I entertained that vision when I came here for the winter. Unfortunately, the crowd here isn't so dumb.
The only amateurish aspect of its betting is its obsession with jockeys; they'd bet on Laffit Pincay Jr. if he were riding a mule. (Of course, Pincay would be a danger to win with the mule.) They hold a fierce prejudice against any horse shipping here from the San Francisco-area tracks. But the crowd here gets so much guidance from good public selectors and various publications that supplement the Racing Form that it bets rather intelligently.
The difference between horseplayers in the West and the East is not their intelligence, but their temper. Transplanted horseplayers notice the contrast immediately.
"At Aqueduct," said former New Yorker Bill Murray, "you always seemed to get a hard knot of real mean, angry, paranoid people complaining after every race. Here, you don't."
"In Chicago," said Rick Talley, "the basic nature of the player is to figure that something is wrong with the game and try to get in on it. The people here are more trustful. They're not stupid, they're not unsophisticated, but they're trustful."
In other parts of the country, nothing brought about the anger and distrust of the crowd so much as the "uncoupled entry" rule. In recent years, many tracks abolished the sensible, time-honored rule that two horses with the same trainer should run as an entry, a single betting unit. But uncoupled entries generated such intense suspicion and hostility among bettors that the practice was discontinued almost everywhere. But not in California.
Last week, trainer John Russell was saddling two of the starters in a six-horse field--the even-money favorite and a 9-to-1 shot who had not run in three months and who showed no decent recent workouts. The 9-to-1 shot won in a runaway. If that had happened at Aqueduct, irate fans would have been setting fire to trash cans before the "official" sign was lit. Here, I knew, the fans would behave somewhat more civilly, and would probably only boo, so I leaned out of the press box to join the chorus.
But there was no chorus. I was the only one booing.
The bettors here don't have too much to complain about, but they are so docile that they don't even raise their voices in anger when they are justified. What Santa Anita needs is a few hard-core New York horseplayers who would set the trash cans on fire now and then.