John Shirreffs should not depart the Southern California thoroughbred racing scene without a salute. So cup your right hand to your forehead and read on.
There will be no brass bands playing when Shirreffs leaves.
That’s partly because it will be early Monday morning, when racing bustles and everybody else sleeps. Moving vans will pull up to Barn 55 South and load boxes of racing equipment accumulated over three decades at Hollywood Park. That done, the quiet man in the baseball cap will head to LAX and fly east.
Shirreffs’ new home will be Barn 41 at Belmont Park, 14 barn numbers and 3,000 miles away. Home will also be an apartment in New York while his house in Arcadia is being sold.
“Paper plates and plastic forks for a while,” he says, smiling.
Shirreffs, one of the truly good guys in racing, says he hasn’t allowed himself to think about the reality of leaving “until the last couple of days.” But he admits “Leaving Southern California is hard to do,” and, “I never expected to do it.”
Another reason there will be no brass bands playing is that the 67-year-old Shirreffs is truly a private person. He wouldn’t allow it, wouldn’t see it as appropriate, wouldn’t have a true grasp on what value he has brought to the Southern California racing scene, not only by example and leadership, but by winning the Kentucky Derby in 2005 with Giacomo and by perfectly preparing the sport’s most-recent heroine, Zenyatta.
There is certain to be a last nostalgic look before he heads to the airport. There’ll be the empty spot on the wall outside his office, where the painting of horses playing poker has hung for years. There will be the patch of grass outside the barn, accented by two little trees, where Zenyatta grazed, posed for her legions of groupies and watched squirrels play.
“We actually had a couple of charity functions on the grass,” Shirreffs says. “Dottie [his wife, Dottie Ingordo] auctioned it off a couple of times.”
Then, of course, there will be a last walk down the row to Stall 85, where Zenyatta lived while she danced and dazzled the racing world with 19 straight victories and a first-ever win over the male horses in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was in Stall 85 where, after things calmed down in the day, Shirreffs would give her a couple of swigs of Guinness.
Zenyatta’s half-sister, the unbeaten (2-0) Eblouissante, lives in Stall 85 now, and will be going on to Belmont Park.
“She likes Guinness too,” Shirreffs says.
In the late 1960s, Shirreffs, raised in Port Washington, N.Y., was a recently discharged Marine from the Vietnam war who was headed for Hawaii to surf and decompress. He got as far as California, knew horses, started working and never got to Hawaii.
Now, he will leave a beleaguered racing scene here, not in anger, but in “frustration.”
“In the last 25-30 years, I haven’t seen the kind of vision we need for this industry,” he says. “The people in charge are the people we depend on to make decisions for things to work, and they haven’t. Why should I expect that to change now?”
Hollywood Park, owned by a Northern California real estate development company, has committed to its spring meeting, starting Thursday with its 75th anniversary session. It has yet to commit to its annual winter meet in November, and certainly not to anything beyond that. Right now, it sits as a major racing facility in need of paint and repair — moss grows over the fluorescent lights outside Shirreffs’ barn — and the likelihood of either happening is slim. The message seems clear. Why paint and repair what is destined for bulldozers?
Shirreffs says that, in the past, there were rumors that seemed to keep the place alive — “a caterer getting a new contract, or something,” he says.
This year, nothing. Actually, the opposite. Negative rumors.
Santa Anita is tight on barn space and doesn’t have the long Hollywood Park straightaways Shirreffs likes for training younger horses. Fairplex might have the barn space, but its track is mostly turns. Where Shirreffs trains horses is more important to him than where he races them. So he put out feelers and quickly got an offer from Belmont he couldn’t refuse.
“If Hollywood Park had said it would stay open another year, I’d have stayed,” he says. “But the logic of what I had to do quickly became overwhelming. The way racing is presented these days to trainers forces us to make really hard decisions. You’ll see more people pulling out.”
None of this is said with raised voice. Shirreffs is not a pound-on-the-table guy. He needs no brass bands. He always speak softly.
But his departure represents a big stick carried over Southern California racing.