Los Alamitos has its biggest day of the season on Saturday as it unofficially kicks off the road to the Kentucky Derby. But this year, things are different.
This year, if the five horse, a big 2-year-old colt bought for a mere $170,000, wins the Los Alamitos Futurity, you can expect to see tears from some of the fans and virtually anyone who ever worked at the track. Even Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert will probably be dabbing his eyes.
The colt is McKinzie, named for everyone’s best friend and someone who worked virtually every job at Los Alamitos over a 40-year career. If all goes well, it will be the only race McKinzie will ever run at Los Alamitos.
The horse is named for Brad McKinzie, as much a staple at this track as the cheap beer and weathered interior. He died Aug. 6 at age 62 from kidney cancer.
McKinzie, the horse, will need an appointment with a Triple Crown race to come close to accomplishing what McKinzie, the man, did.
He is credited with playing a major role in saving the Southern California circuit after Hollywood Park closed by talking track owner Edward “Doc” Allred into expanding the track and stabling area. He, along with business partner Michael Lyon, created a workers’ comp system for backstretch workers that is considered a model for the industry.
He was even the general manager at Los Alamitos for a year, until Allred fired him, then rehired him the next day to run projects and be a top advisor.
“We miss him so terribly,” Allred said. “There is no one else like him.”
The idea to name a horse after McKinzie came at the memorial service when Baffert was talking to Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, who along with Mike Pegram, own the horse.
“We were all pretty emotional,” Baffert said. “And we agreed we had to name a good horse after him. I generally like to wait until they show something before naming them, but I had one that I thought was pretty nice, but we didn’t know he was that nice. We didn’t realize how good he was until a month after naming him.”
Baffert speculated what McKinzie would have said if he knew a horse had been named after him.
“I know what he would have said: ‘Boy, you must not think much of that horse. When are you going to geld him?’ ” Baffert said with a chuckle.
McKinzie is the 6-5 morning-line favorite, which is something considering another Baffert colt in the race, Solomini, was second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Despite having run only one race, McKinzie is the third-favorite to win the Kentucky Derby after the first round of future book wagering.
As a boy, McKinzie would go to Los Alamitos with his parents, Bill and Jean. His love for racing, especially quarter horses, grew, and as a teenager, he started at the bottom as a groom. He went to the Race Track Industry Program at Arizona, where he met classmate Baffert.
Soon he was a member of the Baffert family.
“My mother thought of him as a son,” Baffert said. “And he was her favorite.”
McKinzie came back home to Southern California and talked Baffert into leaving Arizona and racing at Los Alamitos.
McKinzie worked in the publicity departments of Los Alamitos and Hollywood Park and co-founded QuarterWeek Magazine, which lasted from 1984 to 1999.
Along the way, he had several executive positions in local quarter horse racing.
“His mind was always working,” Allred said. “He was an idea man. He had some of the very best ideas and some of the worst ideas.
“He came up with this ‘Kiss-the-Boat’ contest. I wanted to veto it, but I didn’t. Whoever kissed the boat the longest, would get the boat. I thought it was ridiculous. So, we wound up with two people left, and we awarded it to one of them. The other person sued us, and we had to give him a boat too.”
Racetracks are usually dark on Mondays, and that’s when McKinzie would indulge himself in his other passion, golf.
The Baffert boys nicknamed him “Sas,” short for “Sasquatch,” for both his stature and how hard he would hit the ball.
Rick Baedeker, another close friend of McKinzie’s and executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, recalls playing Spyglass Hill in Pebble Beach with him.
“We get to this particular hole, and there are eight or nine deer lying to the right of the fairway,” Baedeker said. “He came up and took this practice swing, and as if on cue, the deer got up and moved to the middle of the fairway. He then hit a long high slice that went right to where the deer had moved from.”
Those types of stories of intentional or unintentional humor are what marked McKinzie’s life. But he was also seen as a trusted advisor and friend.
“He always felt a part of my success, which he was,” Baffert said. “When I would get down, I would call him and he’d tell a joke and make me feel better. He was always my biggest booster and biggest cheerleader.”
McKinzie also had a close relationship with his brother Mark, 59, who is autistic. “It’s very tough,” Mark McKinzie said. “Very hard for me. I talked to him all the time. He helped me a lot.”
Brad McKenzie’s wish upon his death was that contributions be sent to UCLA’s autism research and treatment program.
Baedeker also noted McKinzie’s selflessness with people and said his influence was felt throughout the industry.
“I was putting together a meeting on an industry-wide issue,” Baedeker said. “I sent an email to [California Horse Racing Board Chairman] Chuck Winner saying we’ll meet at this time with the usual suspects. He replied, ‘Don’t forget Brad; he’s our voice of reason.’ ”
McKinzie kept his illness from all but his closest friends, including Baffert.
“At last year’s Futurity, he looked sick,” Baffert said. “He didn’t want anyone to know, and he knew he was up against it. That’s just the way he was. He went out his way.”
Allred also was in the dark about McKinzie’s health.
“When he finally told me about it, he had his kidney taken out,” Allred said. “They also discovered the disease was in his spine when they went in. He only lasted two or three months after that.”
McKinzie’s namesake horse ran his first race 11 days before the man who lent him his name would have turned 63. He won by 5 1/2 lengths in the seven-furlong race at Santa Anita.
“When he won and came down the stretch, the owner’s wife was crying, [owner] Karl [Watson] started to cry,” Baffert said. “His mother said the horse has taken a lot of the sting out of losing her son.”