Horse racing is like a book that can't be judged by its cover.
Saturday was a glorious day at Santa Anita, the kind that used to attract crowds of 30,000 in the heydays of the 1970s and '80s, before racing started to encourage fans to stay away by offering betting everywhere, including their living rooms.
The mountains glimmered in the warm afternoon sun.
"I called a friend in Kentucky and he said the temperature was 1 degree," said trainer Bob Baffert. "Look at this."
Spectators lounged along the rail. A dad lifted his daughter onto his shoulders so she could pet a stable pony's nose. Before the horses went to the races, they paraded in the paddock around a statue of Seabiscuit that commemorates a horse who once enjoyed Tiger Woods-like status.
Even better, a star may have been born.
This was San Rafael Stakes Day, the first mini-step of many that will lead to the biggest race of all, the Kentucky Derby. Now, the name The Pamplemousse will move well to the front of the discussion as to who might be leading the pack May 2 at Churchill Downs.
The Pamplemousse led the mile San Rafael virtually from wire to wire. Trained by Julio Canani, ridden by Alex Solis, and first identified as a prospect and purchased by Solis' son, Alex II, The Pamplemousse started as the second choice behind Square Eddie and looked strong the entire mile. Challenged down the stretch by Doug O'Neill's Square Eddie and John Shirreff's Ryehill Dreamer, The Pamplemousse merely kicked into another gear.
"He was just cruising, almost like he was walking," said jockey Solis. "When the other horses came up to him, he just took off. I didn't even ask him. It's been awhile since I had a horse like this. It gave me goose bumps."
Perhaps the last one to do that for Solis was Brother Derek, who ran well in the 2006 Kentucky Derby and was alongside Barbaro in the Preakness when Barbaro broke down. Solis yanked him around, avoiding injury but taking much of the run out of the horse, and Brother Derek did little of note after that.
The Pamplemousse is owned in part by Ann Winner and Carol Bienstock of Encino; Solis II, of Pasadena, and brothers Bill and Jeff Strauss of Del Mar. The Strauss brothers also own a restaurant near the race track in Del Mar, named The Pamplemousse.
Jeff Strauss told the story.
"I was working in France in a restaurant," he said, "and the chef asked me to bring him a pamplemousse. I had no idea what that was, and finally, another guy handed me a grapefruit and told me to give him that. It became my favorite French word."
It could also become a favorite word of horse players on the first Saturday of May.
"It's almost like the biggest jinx, just to think that," Bill Strauss said. "But in the back of your mind, there's now that little kernel of thought . . . "
So, as the sun went down and the 10,487 in attendance filtered out, it almost seemed idyllic.
But life in racing is far from it.
The synthetic tracks of Southern California remain controversial, especially after five horses had to be euthanized in the first weeks of this Santa Anita meeting. That brought trainers' meetings, newspaper stories and an Internet buzzing with the discontent of horse people.
Some weren't even pointing to the horses' safety, but rather the handicapping difficulties they present. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas fanned the flames when he was quoted by USA Today as saying, "The synthetic track is a nightmare. You know the hotline they have . . . if you have a gambling problem, you call it? Well, synthetics will take care of that. . . . They'll cure the gamblers."
Future Hall of Famer Baffert, whose Pioneerof the Nile is also a Derby prospect, was less than bubbly Saturday when asked about synthetics.
"They change all the time," he said.
Ron Charles, the president of Santa Anita, whose synthetic track performed beautifully for the late October Breeders' Cup, was suddenly back in the position of having to defend it.
"We had a bad first week," Charles said, pointing out that Santa Anita has gone 12 days without a breakdown, "but there's not a track in the United States right now that is better than this one."
Then, there is the saga of Richard Shapiro, for the last four years the head of the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), and the man seen as most responsible for the mandate of synthetic tracks in Southern California. That was a decision made with board approval and in the aftermath of 19 deaths at the '06 Del Mar meeting.
Shapiro quit recently in a move that surprised most horse people. That was followed quickly by stories about him losing his life savings in the Bernard Madoff investment scandal. The immediate assumption was that that had prompted his departure.
Saturday, Shapiro said Madoff had nothing to do with his CHRB decision, that his departure was because he had been frustrated for a long time with the lack of teeth his group had for enacting real change in the industry.
"Horse racing is a dysfunctional industry," said Shapiro, who has been in the sport nearly all his life and whose family owned the legendary Native Diver. "There are so many viewpoints. We need so much help from government. We have to find new alliances. We need to make the industry viable again."
To a degree, a horse named after a grapefruit can contribute to viability. So can sunny days and picturesque mountains.
But Shapiro, a knowledgeable realist, sees a long road.
"There should have been 35,000 people there today," he said.