SANTA ANITA HANDICAP : Smiling, He Risks $120,000


Look! If a cool, benevolent-looking fellow with fringe around his bald pate that makes him look a little bit like Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick comes up to your friendly Saturday night poker game and says, “Mind if I sit in?” you say, “Sorry, this is for family and friends only.” If a guy in a ratty old sweater, with old clubs and a shy smile comes up to your group on the first tee and says, “Mind if I join you?” say you’re awfully sorry, “but we already got three.”

Otherwise, you go home in a barrel. Or on a bus.

The Santa Anita Handicap, one of America’s most venerable horse races, got taken to the cleaners Saturday, so to speak.

This nice Brit with the clipped accent and the grandfatherly look showed up with this rather unprepossessing Irish horse who looked as if he had just been unhitched from a plow, or at least a bridle path, and said to the flower of American racing, in effect, “I say, old chaps, mind if I sit in and take a card?”


Urgent Request is a 5-year-old gray who had never run in this country, never run on dirt.No one ever mixed him up with Man O’ War anyway. His record would have to improve to be merely called “spotty.” He finished 11th in a race in Blighty called the “King George VI.”

But he is a kind of floating crap game. He ran in Canada and Hong Kong. There is no record whether he fleeced the natives, but he hustled Santa Anita on Saturday.

He was listed at 9-1 on the tote board in the post parade. Suddenly the lights blinked and he was almost the favorite--5-2. Veteran press-boxers whistled. “Someone just dropped a bundle in the pool on No. 4!”

Someone sure had. Stewart Aitken, the friendly owner. He had just put up $120,000 on his horse.

Needless to say, he collected. At the end of the race, he was like the guy who innocently says, “Are these any good?” as he drops four aces on the table, or who shoots a little 69 to your 72 to win the match and the presses four ways.

You look at Stewart Aitken and you know how the Brits got that Empire. He leaks sincerity, good fellowship. From the Ben Franklin bald spot to the bifocals to the reassuring accent, you’d buy a gold brick from him, trust him with your daughter. He would have made a great spy.


He couldn’t make up his mind whether to take his Irish-bred to Australia or America. He decided to honor America because our tracks are harder. And competition softer. You always pick a game where they’ll bet on a small pair.

Urgent Request is what they’d call in this country a “front runner.” Except in England, a mile-and-a-quarter is a sprint. Urgent Request is a precocious animal who wins races by seven lengths--or loses by 11. But he loses at a mile-and-a-half and over.

Aitken got the great Gary Stevens home from Hong Kong to ride his horse. They didn’t spoil the horse any. They worked him right off the plane. Stevens was impressed. “He ran 58 and change!” he told the trainer. He loved the hard track.

It was like having your own deck, boiling the dice. Aitken got a $550,000 purse, $288,000 for his win bet and $6,000 for show. He had bet $90,000 to win, $30,000 to show.

A casino owner in his native Scotland, Aitken is no stranger to the big payoff.

But it is a fitting, audacious bit of melodrama for the Santa Anita Handicap, whose history is full of them.

You know, before there were trifectas, perfectas, exactas, Pick Sixes, there was a Santa Anita Handicap. Santa Anita didn’t even allow Daily Doubles. Considered them beneath its dignity.


Our community has lost the Rams, we’ve lost the World Series. You might say we’ve lost our soul. But we still have the Santa Anita Handicap, the race that put L.A. on the sports map in the first place.

Owner Aitken’s foray was in keeping with the track’s melodramatic tradition. It is difficult to reconstruct what an audacious, even dangerous idea the Santa Anita Handicap was in its day. That was 60 years ago. The country was in the grip of the Great Depression. The average wage-earner took home $14 a week. If he had a job, that is. Most of the work force took home nothing. Unemployment was almost total. Welfare hadn’t even been invented. Stock brokers were selling apples on street corners.

The world was broke. Postage stamps were 2 cents. Bread was a nickel, but nobody had the nickel. Factories were silent. You could buy a new Ford for a few hundred. The hit song of the day was, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Who could?

Even in sports, the take was minuscule. Legendary ballplayers such as Lou Gehrig were lucky to be making $20,000 a year. The winner of the U.S. Open got $1,500. The winner last year got $320,000. Tennis players got room-and-board and a cup.

Into this miasma of hard times and desperation, Dr. Charles Strub founded Santa Anita and put on a horse race for $100,000.

The country gasped and reeled at this audacity. The Kentucky Derby only paid $30,000 the year before. Were they all crazy out there in California?


In a way, they were. The state was full of Doc Strubs. They had put on the ’32 Olympic Games on a shoestring. They had founded an entire industry on dreams--the movies.

Doc Strub got what he wanted: international notoriety. The best horses from all over the country trucked in. His field made the Kentucky Derby look like a claimer. The great Discovery came West; the horse they called “The Chocolate Soldier,” Equipoise; Head Play, the Triple Crown winner Twenty Grand.

Twenty horses started in the first race. The great silks, C.V. Whitney’s, the Vanderbilts, Greentree’s, Bel Air Stud’s. An illegal immigrant, the Irish-bred Azucar, beat them all.

Bear in mind, this was 11 years before the Rams came West, 23 years before the Dodgers did. L.A.’s only claim to fame came from the USC Trojans, and that was largely because they played Notre Dame.

It was a shot in the arm for racing. Hollywood got hotly in the act. Moguls such as Louis B. Mayer and the Warner Bros. got stables. Bing Crosby built a racetrack. Any weekend, the turf club looked like Central Casting.

So, it’s altogether fitting that a Brit freebooter with an ace up his sleeve and a fast horse on a halter should come over and steal the race.


Doc Strub would have loved it. He liked bucking the house, winning the deal, shooting sevens. The Santa Anita Handicap wouldn’t have been here if he weren’t that type of person. Stewart Aitken was his kind of guy. He would have understood him perfectly. Hold ‘em and bet ‘em. And beat ‘em.