It’s a dubious honor, certainly, but an inevitable one. After all, someone has to be last.
On Monday evening, with the shadows lengthening across the infield, Affiance, with Darrel McHargue up, crossed the finish line--the last horse in the last race on the last day of Santa Anita’s 49th meeting.
After 89 days and 801 races, it was finally over, another season at an end, the records at last to be written in ink, not pencil.
Closing day is always a day of mixed emotions at the race track, a day to look back at what was and what might have been. It would be more emotional still were racing not a year-round sport.
But because there is no pause there is little time to reflect. What happens next happens immediately, only the scenery changes. Today Santa Anita, tomorrow Hollywood Park, the next day Del Mar. The cycle is endless.
All the same, each season brings its special moments, its successes and its failures. This one was no exception.
Take McHargue, for example. He may have been the tail-ender in the last race but not too many minutes earlier he had finished first aboard Fabbiani in the day’s feature, the $100,000 San Jacinto Handicap.
That’s the way racing is, up one minute, down the next. Closing day, in fact, came close to capturing the triumphs and tragedies of the meeting as a whole.
There was, for instance, the triumph on the face of jockey Gary Stevens as he won the sixth race aboard Most Prestigious to clinch his first Santa Anita riding championship, edging last year’s winner, Chris McCarron, for the honor. Stevens, who turned 23 last month, finished with 103 victories, four ahead of McCarron. The finish was the closest since Laffit Pincay topped Bill Shoemaker by six wins in 1975.
And then there was the tragedy written on the faces of those attending Northwest Emperor, who crumpled to the ground in the third race, both forelegs smashed, and had to be destroyed on the track. That incident showed the sport’s callous side, most of the 36,457 fans on hand more interested in who got to the wire first than in the fate of horse and rider.
Yet the sight of Northern Emperor struggling to rise to his feet on shattered legs before being administered the lethal injection sticks uncomfortably in the memory. Such statistics tend to be kept hidden, but more than two dozen horses met a similar fate in the meeting. Racing does have its price.
Jockey Laffit Pincay escaped injury in the incident, but others this season have not been as fortunate. Carlos Marquez, for one, still remains hospitalized, and riders such as Stevens, Terry Lipham, Rafael Meza and Eddie Delahoussaye all were involved in spills.
But all was not gloom and doom at Santa Anita, although the final figures on attendance and handle for the meeting are sure to produce a long face or two in the boardroom. Put succinctly, both were down.
Total attendance declined by more than 300,000, falling from 2,928,253 a year ago to 2,601,326. That 11.2% drop was also reflected in the average attendance, down from 32,902 to 29,228.
As for handle, the decline was less marked, falling only 3.8% when compared to a year ago. The total handle fell by more than $20 million, dropping from last year’s record $531,091,571 to $511,038,697.
Alan Balch, Santa Anita senior vice president for marketing, while conceding that the existence of the California lottery had had a negative impact on the meeting, said he believed that poor weather was more a factor in the drop in attendance and handle than the lottery.
“I have to attribute the decline more to the weather than to the lottery,” Balch said, “since the handle remained up until early February (when a series of heavy rainstorms began taking its toll).”
In the long run, though, it is the brighter moments of the 49th Santa Anita meeting that will be remembered. And there were many:
--Charlie Whittingham, the 73-year-old patriarch or the track, leading the meet in wins with 27, in stakes with 10, and in earnings with a record $2,302,850.
--McCarron’s 99 victories, including a meeting-high 16 stakes. McCarron was also the meeting’s leading money-winning jockey with $3,295,125 in purses.
--Snow Chief’s turning the Santa Anita Derby into the great place race at the great race place by leaving the field behind in his six-length win. By meet’s end, Snow Chief had become such a crowd pleaser that posters and buttons of the Kentucky Derby favorite were in demand and even a Snow Chief video with a country-western flavor was well received by fans.
--The drama of the Santa Anita Handicap, where 157-to-1 longshot Herat could not quite hang on, finishing a mere three-quarters of a length behind the winner, Greinton, in the track’s first million-dollar race.
--The continuing duel between Greinton and Precisionist, now tied at four victories apiece in head-to-head competition.
--The outstanding performances by Lady’s Secret, the only horse to win three stakes in the meeting, and by Mountain Bear, Dahar, Bedouin, Hidden Light, Phone Trick and others too numerous to mention.
--The media circus that attended Japanese champion Symboli Rudolf, thoroughbred racing’s all-time active leading money winner, when he came to run in the San Luis Rey Stakes. Although he was injured, finished next-to-last and supposedly is to be retired to stud, Symboli Rudolf added to the international flavor of the meeting.
Finally, no recap of 1985-86 would be complete without a mention of trainer Bruce Headley, who, for no rhyme or reason, favors the use of rhyming couplets when trying to make a point.
Although he may not be able to stake a claim as a poet, Headley knows how to claim a stake as a trainer. By mid-March, he had won seven stakes with five different horses, notably Variety Road and Halo Folks, and led the trainer standings.
Then, inexplicably, his luck changed and the victories suddenly stopped coming. A matter of things going from bad to verse, perhaps.
Horse Racing Notes Jockey Carlos Marquez, critically injured in a spill at Santa Anita last Wednesday, is improving but still in serious condition at Methodist Hospital in Arcadia. Neurosurgeon Dr. David Maline said Monday that Marquez is talking and taking nourishment by mouth but will remain in the intensive care unit. . . . Don Johnson, executive director of the Horsemen’s Protective and Benevolent Assn., has called a general membership meeting of the HPBA for Wednesday morning at 10:30 at Gate 7 at Hollywood Park to discuss the HPBA’s dispute with Hollywood Park. . . . Mountain Bear, who finished a game second in Sunday’s San Juan Capistrano Handicap, probably will be rested until the Del Mar meeting in July, according to trainer Darrell Vienna. . . . A million-dollar Pick Nine ticket that had been outstanding since April 6 was cashed late Monday by a bettor who declined to be identified. The winner, described only as a middle-aged Southern Californian man, won $1,035,566 on a bet of $1,152.