Before I ever came to California, the racing here seemed strange and mysterious. Good horses would travel from East to West and flop miserably; lesser horses might make the transition successfully. The nature of the game seemed as alien as if it were being conducted on the moon.
If I had observed the result of Sunday's San Fernando Stakes from 3,000 miles away, the dismal performance of Proud Truth would seem to offer further evidence of California's inscrutability. How could the second-ranked horse of his generation be trounced by a bunch of nonentities?
But because I now am somewhat familiar with the West, I realize that there was nothing surprising about Proud Truth's performance. Every knowledgeable handicapper here anticipated it. The explanation is simple, but I had to spend one costly season here before I understood it; Proud Truth's trainer, John Veitch, now is getting a similarly painful education.
California racing is different from racing anywhere else. It may look the same -- four-legged animals run around dirt ovals just as they do in the East -- but it is a fundamentally different game because of the nature of the racing surfaces.
Race tracks in the West are lightning-fast, as everybody knows. Few Easterners have seen a six-furlong race run with a quarter-mile in 21 1/5 seconds, a half-mile in :43 4/5 and a final time of 1:09. Those were the fractions for a 3-year-old maiden race at Santa Anita last week.
But the hard tracks do more than put amazing numbers on the Teletimer; they affect racing strategy, training strategy and the very essence of horses' form.
Just as a human can run faster, farther and more easily on a Tartan track than on a beach, horses run more easily here than they do on a sandy Eastern track. They don't need to be as fit and well-conditioned. They can run longer distances. They don't get tired quickly.
Because the front-runners in a typical race never are going to collapse, a horse must be able to stay relatively close to the lead. Jeff Siegel, the best handicapper in the West, defines the requirements this way: "You don't have to be a front-runner to win, but you must have tactical speed -- the ability to leave the gate and get position in the first eighth of a mile. You don't swoop around the field on the turn here the way Proud Truth did in the Breeders' Cup. If you're a plodder, the only way you can win a race is by default."
Trainers here understand the nature of the game, and they condition their horses in a manner totally different from their counterparts in the East. When Laz Barrera moved his stable here from New York in the 1970s, he discarded the long, slow workouts that had been his trademark. Here he never worked a horse farther than five-eighths of a mile, but he worked them fast, and he quickly became one of the dominant trainers in California.
Proud Truth prepared for his first Western race in standard Eastern fashion: a seven-furlong workout in 1:26, a mile in 1:38 2/5, a mile and one eighth in 1:51 1/5. He was fit. But on the Santa Anita track fitness is far less important than quickness, and the other horses in the San Fernando were trained accordingly. Will Dancer, the favorite, sped five-eighths of a mile in :58 2/5 in his final workout. Right Con, the eventual winner, zipped seven-eighths in 1:24 2/5.
Anyone who hopes to succeed in California racing -- whether he is a trainer, a jockey, a horse or a horseplayer -- must recognize the distinctive nature of the game here and play it accordingly. Anyone who can't adapt will suffer the same inevitable fate that Proud Truth did on Sunday.