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A Life at the Races : Strub Helped Santa Anita Reach Prominence, but Now He Suffers From Lou Gehrig's Disease

February 04, 1993|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The name of Strub is all over February's racing calendar. Bob Strub, the chairman and chief executive officer of Santa Anita, will receive an Eclipse Award on Friday night in Century City for his service to racing, and a day later the track will run the $500,000 Charles H. Strub Stakes, which is named after his father, the visionary San Francisco dentist who opened the place with an $800 race on Christmas Day in 1934.

Despite the Eclipse tribute and race the same weekend, nothing is right about the timing of these events. Bob Strub, 75, is in a wheelchair, having learned last summer that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, an incurable affliction that wrecks the muscle-controlling nerves in the brain and spinal cord.

Bob and Betty Strub, his wife of almost 50 years, sat in their San Marino home a few days ago, discussing the past, present and future of a vastly successful racetrack that has had their family imprint for six decades. They are stiff-upper-lip cheerful. Slow of speech, Bob Strub is still sharp of mind. A couple of times, he corrected his wife and a reporter when they were thinking one thing and saying another.

In June, before he was found to have the disease, Bob Strub had undergone quadruple bypass surgery. Follow-up treatment for that operation led to the confirmation of Gehrig's disease by August.

"Before that," Strub said, "I thought I had a problem that might be cleared up with a back operation."

Last month, in his wheelchair, Strub had a front-row seat at a two-day racing conference at a Pasadena hotel about nonracing forms of gambling. But that was not close enough for the racing executive long known to be part of the fray rather than a mere spectator.

"That's right," said Alan Balch, who has worked in marketing capacities at Santa Anita for most of the last 20 years. "I had lunch with Bob one of those days, and it was just eating him up that he couldn't participate."

In the quiet of San Marino, Strub reflected on how the sport has changed since his father started Santa Anita, and since he became president of the track in 1960, two years after Charles Strub's death and following a hard-nosed proxy fight.

"There was no (state) lottery," Strub said. "No Indian gaming. No keno. Now we're in a position where we're legislated and licensed by the state at the same time we're in competition with the state (against the lottery and other games). And all the while, we're asked to pay the highest parimutuel tax in the country. Sacramento has multibillion-dollar deficits, so it's not going to change, either. It's no wonder I prefer what were really the good old days."

When Strub became president of Santa Anita, the track was averaging 26,000 a day in attendance and $2.1 million in betting. Hollywood Park, averaging 29,000 and $2.2 million, was offering purse money of almost $65,000 a day, more than any track in the country. By 1987, the last year these tracks would operate without off-track betting, Santa Anita's daily figures--30,000 fans and $6.1 million in handle--had dropped Hollywood Park into a distant second place.

"Bob had been under other people's thumbs until there was that proxy fight," said Ray Rogers, a former Santa Anita general manager who has worked alongside Strub in several capacities since 1955. "After he survived that, he really showed people what he could do. He lifted the stature of Santa Anita in a number of ways. The most important thing he did was to redecorate the plant over the next six or eight years. He went about it 200 or 300 feet at a time until it was finished."

The common perception of Strub is that he has surrounded himself with capable people, then given them lots of slack. "That's not entirely correct," Balch said. "When I first joined Santa Anita, it was said that you didn't sneeze without getting Bob Strub's permission. He has been an extremely hands-on track operator. I hate to think how many meetings he sat in on, just to discuss the quality of the toilet paper in the rest rooms.

"He hasn't been a neck-wringer. He's wanted to be advised of everything that was going on. Once you had his confidence, he'd give you enough rope so that you could hang yourself a hundred times over. When he decided to go ahead with the (1984) Olympic equestrian events at Santa Anita, he turned me completely loose. Contrary to his public reputation of being a conservative, Bob is a risk-taker. And the one thing he'll always ask you when a decision needs to be made is: 'What should we be doing as far as the best interests of the company are concerned?' "

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