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Old-Timers Find Renewal at the Track

October 06, 1985|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

On the backside at Santa Anita race track, they still remember jockey Johnny Adams. Maybe that's why he likes visiting there just before he leaves for home each day.

Adams says his doctor suggested walking as a way to recover from gall bladder surgery in June, but the sidewalks and shopping malls around his home in Arcadia don't interest him much.

He says he'd rather spend his mornings watching the horses train and then taking a walk through the backside, the part of the track seen by few fans but familiar enough to Adams, 71, who retired in 1982 after 50 years of riding and training Thoroughbreds. His distinguished career is recalled in track halls of fame in New York and Maryland.

"I'd be lost other than around the racing environment," says Adams, a quiet man with a shy, almost self-conscious grin. "I've been retired only a few years so it's pretty hard for me to keep busy. But now that they're racing again at Santa Anita, I'll probably be here just about every day."

51st Year of Racing

Last week, Santa Anita opened its Thoroughbred racing season for the 51st year. For Johnny Adams and a handful of other retired jockeys and trainers who no longer follow the Southern California racing circuit and who live year-round near Santa Anita, the excitement that once accompanied opening day has been replaced by different emotions.

This is a time, they say, of filling hours otherwise idled by retirement and poor health, of chance meetings with men they sometimes don't recognize at first but remember when they get to swapping stories about owners and trainers and the first winners they ever rode.

The faces include those of jockeys and trainers such as John Deering and Louis (Apples) Taber, survivors of the California circuit and ones just like it up and down the East Coast and through the Midwest and South. They traveled from one small city to the next, sometimes as part of a team of jockeys on the payroll of one owner but often wearing the silks of any owner who offered them a promising mount. Some spent their youth battling to make weight and failing to overcome drinking problems that destroyed marriages and scattered families.

Counting the Years

Now, wearing their paunches proudly and counting the years without a drink, they wait for the circuit to return to them. When it does, early morning at the track--with dew all over everything and the sun still waiting to come up--is theirs again.

"I've got to have something to do, some reason to get up in the morning," said 81-year-old Taber. "They are the only people I know, people associated with Thoroughbred horse racing."

For many of them, the backside is where they were initiated into horse racing. It's where owners take great pains dressing up their stables, bringing in imported turf and white wrought iron lawn chairs and tarps painted with company colors and logos; where Mexican illegals scrub barns clean and where hot walkers cool down mares and geldings after early morning runs, the horses' taut legs still steaming in the brisk autumn air.

Racing is one of those sports that reveres its old-timers. Near the stables and tack rooms, it's more than simple guesswork that the 4-foot, 8-inch, roly-poly Adams must be an old-time jockey.

Even female exercise riders--girls younger than three of his four grandchildren, who would have been heresy in Adams' day--call him by his first name as he walks by, his stride short and quick and his boots comfortable in the mix of mud and manure.

'A Good Feeling'

"It gives you a good feeling knowing the people at Santa Anita remember you," Adams said. "Horse racing's been very good to me."

Adams said Santa Anita is considered the centerpiece of the Southern California racing circuit. The circuit takes jockeys, trainers, grooms and hangers-on from Hollywood Park to Del Mar to Pomona and then back to Santa Anita, where the San Gabriel Mountains provide what horse trainer John Canty calls the "best backdrop for horse racing in the world."

"Santa Anita is the greatest race place in the world," said Canty, who grew up and rode his first horse in Ireland, where four generations of his family have raised and trained Thoroughbreds. "The owners pay

attention to every minute detail. It's what I would term 'regal racing.' "

Fiddled With Stopwatch

On the first day of public workouts last week, Apples Taber sat in the corner of the lower grandstand area and fiddled with a stopwatch that he said has never needed repair in more than 40 years of clocking horses. He said he was looking forward to the running of the Oak Tree Stakes meeting, which began last Wednesday and will continue for five weeks. The six-month winter racing season at Santa Anita begins Dec. 26.

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