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On closing day at Santa Anita, it's the fans who race--to dig up the flowers

April 23, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

It was the last day of the racing season at Santa Anita, and some were winning, some were losing and some were digging up the infield and taking it home.

All very traditional, said a smiling security guard who kept telling people to take all the pansies they wanted but leave the marigolds--to no avail, because everything was going, fast.

After several giveaway days throughout the season when tote bags, pens, mugs, umbrellas and glasses bearing jockeys' pictures were handed out to lure people to the track, Santa Anita was giving away its spectacular infield garden.

For nine years, this has been a closing-day ritual. Right after the fifth race, people are invited to dig up the pansies that swirl in bright patterns at the east end of the infield and in the paddock area.

What happened Monday was typical, according to last-day veterans. Digging started at about the third race, and people loaded cartons, wagons, plastic trash bags and even baby carriages with plants.

A mixed breed of horse-and-horticulture fans had trowels in hand and racing programs in their hip pockets. They were equally fluent in racing jargon and gardenese, talking compost and post time in the same breath, giving odds on each race and on how long the plants would bloom.

John Valdez was there for the fifth consecutive year, "taking some of Santa Anita home just because it's Santa Anita," he explained.

Valdez had taken the day off from his job with the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water just to get the flowers. He predicted that "with vitamin B and plenty of water, they should last several weeks."

"They'll last until winter, with enough fertilizer," said Michael Yates, 34, who has been coming to the track since 1970.

While his wife, Cheryl, carried their 9-month-old daughter, Lauren, Yates heaped boxes of pansies onto the baby's stroller.

"I just want these plants because it's tradition. This is the classiest track of them all, and it's such a great thing they offer," Yates said.

Fred Holiday of Van Nuys bet on Sun Man in the eighth race for his sister-in-law in Bethany, Mo., and was digging pansies to take to her on Saturday.

"With any luck at all, I'll be able to hand her winnings and pansies from Santa Anita at the same time," Holiday said. (Sun Man came in seventh, so she'll get just pansies.)

"They'll last indefinitely," predicted John Douglas Mottram, who said he brightens up his yard and ingratiates himself with neighbors by handing out the pansy plants on Olinda Street in Sun Valley.

Loading piles of pansies onto a wagon, Mottram said: "I've saved myself a lot of heart attacks with this wagon and made a lot of friends with pansies."

The pansy giveaway began in the 1930s, soon after Santa Anita's opening in 1934, but it ended after a few years. When it began again in the late 1970s, Santa Anita had redesigned the infield and allowed racing fans to picnic there, but the elaborate pattern of yellow and lavender pansies and orange marigolds remained.

A Santa Anita spokesman said the flowers are a legacy of the late Charles H. Strub, founder of the track, who "wanted to make everything as beautiful and respectable as possible to create an acceptable environment for people who were not accustomed to the idea of gambling."

The legacy involves replanting the beds every year and picking thousands of pansies every day to keep them blooming.

The track will not be open again until Oct. 7, when the Oak Tree Meet will be held for five weeks. The regular Santa Anita season traditionally begins the day after Christmas.

Then the pansies and marigolds will be back. And so, they predicted, will Valdez, the Yateses, Holiday and Mottram.

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