Gene Klein stood in the Santa Anita paddock recently, waiting for his filly, Life's Magic, to be saddled for the Santa Anita Handicap.
"How many people do they have here today?" Klein asked.
Told that the early estimate was more than 82,000, Klein said: "You know, I was in New York for the Marlboro Cup, a major race, last fall, and all they drew was something like 25,000. Can anybody back there really believe that New York is still the king of thoroughbred racing?"
Russ Harris, who covers racing for the New York Daily News, and trainer Wayne Lukas got into a discussion about New York vs. California superiority after the Kentucky Derby last year. Lukas argued for California, where he lives, but he's got the best of both worlds, training for owners who are comfortable running their horses on either coast.
Santa Anita's final crowd count was 85,527, breaking by about 1,800 a track record that had stood for 38 years. It was also the biggest non-Kentucky Derby crowd in history, topping by 1,400 the turnout for the Preakness at Pimlico in 1981.
Racing's attendance record is 163,628 for the 1974 Kentucky Derby, but Churchill Downs no longer holds the betting record, since $12,611,415 passed through the windows at Santa Anita. That broke the record $11.8 million bet at the Derby in 1983, when the crowd was 134,000.
How did so many people push so much money through the machines at Santa Anita? The cash-sell system, where all transactions can be handled at one window, is one answer, although the action was so furious at one point that there was a two-second delay between the placing of the bets and their recording in the pools. The Pick Six payoffs weren't known until well after the last race.
Many of the elements usually necessary for a big crowd were present. Santa Anita had good weather, little competition from other sports, a good betting card and a promotion--the Big 'Cap Jackpot that this year included prizes of $10,000 and a Mercedes-Benz. Additionally, there was a two-day carryover in the Pick Six of $460,000.
One thing lacking, however, was a good overall field for the Big 'Cap itself. There were only seven starters, three trained by Charlie Whittingham, and none had the charisma of John Henry, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed or Vigors, some of the stars in the race in recent years.
Lord at War, who won his fifth-straight stakes race, and Greinton are solid horses, but hardly big attractions. Gate Dancer, with his bizarre earmuffs and on-track reputation as a gate crasher, is still a curiosity, but he hasn't won a race in five months. Life's Magic, a champion filly, may have given the Big 'Cap a much-needed extra dimension, but she hasn't won a race in California since 1983.
There was dismay in Santa Anita's executive suite when Precisionist, who had swept the Strub series, was withdrawn from the Big 'Cap because of a cough. But the crowd came anyway, without a Precisionist or a John Henry. The reputation of the race, regardless of who's running it, may have been a bigger factor than any.
When a horse has a family tree that includes Bold Bidder, Bold Ruler, Hail to Reason, Inca Queen and Silver Spoon and is sold for $3.2 million, he's expected to win a race once in a while.
It's been a great while--more than five months--since Hail Bold King has won. He took the Pegasus Handicap last September at the Meadowlands, but in five subsequent starts has turned in one dull performance after another. Even in his best finish since the Pegasus, when he ran second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, Hail Bold King was almost 10 lengths behind Slew o' Gold.
Hail Bold King bled while running third in the San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita on Feb. 17, which enabled him to run under medication in the Santa Anita Handicap. The 4-year-old colt lugged in badly and finished fifth, beating only two horses.
"He warmed up good and felt better this time," jockey Eddie Delahoussaye said. "But then he tried to lay on a horse at the five-eighths pole. At the quarter pole, I had to steady him, and he started lugging in again.
"I don't know what's wrong. Maybe something's bugging him that doesn't show up. I saw a tape of the race he won at the Meadowlands. He had his head cocked, but he didn't lug in that night."
Robert Brennan bought Hail Bold King at the C.V. Whitney dispersal sale in November for a price believed to be a record for a horse of racing age.
Soon after the sale, Brennan took in three equal partners--Aaron Jones, Fred Sahadi and Dan Agnew. They have a well-bred horse who has yet to run to his pedigree.
Jacinto Vasquez, who has ridden winners in New York and Florida since his one-year suspension ended two weeks ago, was booed at Aqueduct, even though he won his first race back. Vasquez allegedly offered another jockey a bribe in a race-fixing scheme.
"I expected the boos," Vasquez said. "They boo all the good riders in New York. They don't bother booing the bum riders."