All Bets Were Off
The familiar tones of Jay Cohen’s “Call to the Post” before each race signal bettors to shuffle to the betting windows, and thoroughbred fans in the paddock to head back to the grandstands as the horses parade to the track, their jockeys clad in colorful silks.
As the horses come into view of those in the stands, the trumpeter’s notes are overlaid by the cheers and applause from the crowd and the more subdued tones of those making their wagers.
The sounds and sights of Santa Anita, which bills itself as “The Great Race Place.”
There was a time, though, when it wasn’t a race place at all. For a few years during World War II, Santa Anita Park became Camp Santa Anita, an Army training base.
The familiar tones were of the bugler sounding reveille, the “hut, hut, hut!” barked out by sergeants marching recruits in close-order drill around the military post, down rows of stalls, where many were billeted, and through the huge parking lot, where hundreds of tent barracks had been hastily erected.
The ordered cadence was often interrupted by the sharp crack of weapons being tested on the firing range out near Lucky Baldwin’s old winery, just behind where the turf course now runs down the hill.
The only color was khaki.
Laura Hillenbrand’s book, “Seabiscuit, an American Legend,” and the movie made from it have rekindled interest in the racing gem that Dr. Charles H. Strub built in Arcadia more than 60 years ago. The life-size bronze statue of the little horse in the paddock gardens has been a centerpiece for the track since it was erected in 1941.
Seabiscuit won 11 races at Santa Anita and the hearts of the country with his stirring match-race win over War Admiral at Pimlico, but some of us recall “the ‘Biscuit” best from marching past his statue during the two years when Santa Anita was turned into an ordnance camp.
Much has been written about Santa Anita being an assembly center for Japanese Americans immediately after Pearl Harbor and how they were billeted in 12x12-foot horse stalls during their six-month internment before going to permanent camps. Rarely mentioned is that as soon as they left, those stalls were filled by GIs.
Seabiscuit is said to have been stabled in Barn 38, and fans can get a close look at it by taking one of the guided tours offered by the track. The barn numbers were gone by the time I arrived in the fall of 1943, but as close as could be determined, the stall I shared for a time had been the home of Time Supply, third-place finisher in the inaugural Santa Anita Handicap in 1935.
Of the 20,000 soldiers stationed there, 8,500 of us bunked in stalls. Other soldiers lived in row after row of tent barracks in the parking area. To retain the track’s horsy atmosphere, streets were named for thoroughbreds, such as Discovery, Cavalcade, He Did, Stagehand and other Santa Anita favorites.
At other camps, enlisted men were called “yardbirds.” At Camp Santa Anita, we were “turfbirds.”
When Strub, the track founder and first president of Los Angeles Turf Club, turned the facility over to the Army in 1942, he insisted that it retain its original character as much as possible. Wanting someone to keep an eye on the changes, Strub asked Brig. Gen. Bethel Simpson, the camp commander, to order a key transfer. Thus, Robert Strub, the doctor’s son, a Signal Corps second lieutenant at Ft. Monmouth, N.J., was dispatched to Arcadia, and when the camp opened he was its signal officer.
It was long rumored that Bob Strub was the first officer assigned to Santa Anita and would be the last to leave.
“That’s not exactly true,” Strub said years later when he was the track’s president. “I was one of the first, but I left long before the camp shut down. My father was right in having me there, though, because I was familiar with the layout of the track and helped with the transition.”
The main grandstand became the War Department theater, used for training films during the day and Hollywood movies at night. The ladies’ restrooms were converted to officers’ quarters, and the Turf Club became the officers’ mess. The main entrance was transformed into an enlisted men’s Service Club.
Betting rooms were partitioned into offices and classrooms, but the signs, such as “TWO DOLLAR WIN” and “SELLERS,” remained. Where a civilian might have made a wager in the clubhouse before Dec. 7, 1941, he lined up, as a GI, to buy items from the Post Exchange. Blackboards replaced tote boards as GIs learned the complexities of ordnance, training with pistols, rifles, machine guns and small artillery.
The saddling paddock was enclosed and made into the camp hospital.
The infield, where thousands of flowers had flourished only a few months before, became a community of warehouses and athletic fields, bisected by a railroad spur that hauled soldiers and artillery into the camp. At one time, there were seven softball diamonds, six basketball courts, six volleyball courts and two football fields used for recreation.
Where Westfield Shoppingtown now stands, to the west of the grandstands, there was a training track called Anita Chiquita. It was made into an obstacle course, a diabolical couple of hundred yards where soldiers were either frightened half to death by bombs exploding a few feet from where they were crawling under barbed wire, noses to the dirt, while live ammunition flew above their heads, or were made sick to their stomachs by the stench of “dead bodies” on the ground.
“We want our soldiers to get the feel of combat so we have made the course as close to what they might face as we could,” Gen. Simpson said.
To create the ultimate in realism, he brought in a Caltech professor, A.J. Haagen-Smit, to make a synthetic warlike stink to accompany the “bodies” made of wax.
“In the summer, when it was humid, the smell was terrible for all of us, not just the guys crawling through the obstacle course,” said Jack Tierney, who had been a Hollywood press agent before being drafted. “If the smell of horses doesn’t get to you coming up from beneath the floor, the smell from the dead bodies will.”
Recruits were processed from civilians to trained ordnance personnel in three months. Most of them were hastily moved to combat areas in Europe or the jungles of the South Pacific.
More than half the soldiers who went through the camp were trained not as infantrymen or artillerymen, but as clerks, who would handle the paperwork involved in the movement of weapons.
“I don’t know how Julius Caesar ever got through the Gallic wars without a mimeograph machine,” Gen. Simpson once commented. Little did he know that fax machines and e-mail were coming.
Everyone, clerks, specialists and officers alike, had to complete combat training, however.
As close to Hollywood as it was, though, and having Pfc. Skinnay Ennis in its special-services unit, Santa Anita was one of the better military assignments for a GI.
Bing Crosby called one day and asked if he could put on a show for the troops, complete with dancing girls. Ennis, a singer-musician who had been part of Bob Hope’s radio show before he was drafted, brought Hope, along with entertainers such as singer Kate Smith, comedians Red Skelton and Phil Silvers, bandleader Kay Kyser, and tap-dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to perform for USO shows. Ennis directed the post’s 28-piece band. He also made his theme song, “Got a Date With an Angel” into the camp’s theme song. What the guys really liked, though, were the starlets who always came along with the entertainers.
Jackie Price, who later became one of baseball’s favorite clowns, perfected his routines during his tour at Santa Anita by standing on his head and catching fly balls while driving a Jeep across the outfield on one of the camp’s ball fields.
“I remember one day, we played a team that had Red Ruffing pitching and Joe DiMaggio in the outfield and I think more people came to see Jackie Price than anything else,” said Andrew “Bunny” Edwards, head of the camp special services.
The press box, up on the roof, was taken over by public relations and used as editorial offices for Man o’ War, the camp newspaper, which was edited by Chip Cleary, who had been the editor of the Hollywood Reporter.
Every day, at noon, a 15-minute news report was broadcast over the public address system. Commentators were Art Litchman, University of Oregon athletic publicist, and myself. To get into the broadcast booth, however, we needed the signal officer to unlock the door.
That was Capt. Robert Strub.
After the soldiers left, late in 1944, the facility was briefly used as a prisoner-of-war camp, housing several thousand German soldiers from Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
Then it was returned to Dr. Strub, along with a $1-million check to restore it to racing conditions. The track reopened as a race place May 15, 1945.