Perhaps no other cultural institution in Southern California better exemplifies our fascination with and love of horses than Santa Anita Park. Yes, it’s having many problems now, with 30 horses since December being injured while running on the track and later euthanized. But since opening in 1934, Santa Anita has been a national hub of competitive horse racing action.
While the original racetrack was opened in 1907 by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin in what is now known as Arcadia Park, the Santa Anita we know today dates back to late 1934 when San Francisco dentist Charles H. Strub and movie mogul Hal Roach re-opened the track in its current location, just a few blocks away from the old one, after the legalization of pari-mutuel gambling the prior year.
Santa Anita’s rich history was foretold when its 1930s inception found success despite the Great Depression. Just months after opening, the first Santa Anita Handicap had a purse of $100,000, a previously unheard of amount that equals about $1.8 million today. Referred to as the “Hundred-Grander,” the Santa Anita Handicap quickly became one of the top races in the nation.
Santa Anita Park soon became a part of Hollywood movie history when the 1937 classic “A Day at the Races” featured the Marx Bros. wreaking havoc at the park. Santa Anita went on to be used in a variety of other films, such as “Public Enemies,” the movie starring Johnny Depp as Depression-era American gangster John Dillinger, and, of course the movie “Seabiscuit,” starring Tobey Maguire.
By 1940, legendary racehorse Seabiscuit had made a name for itself and cemented itself as part of Santa Anita’s history. It won that year’s handicap after two previous attempts and a 1939 injury that many thought would be the end of the horse’s career. In 1941, a life-size statue of the horse was installed in the park and still stands there today.
Of course, all history has a dark side and the racetrack is no exception. As also noted in a recent PW story about the park, in 1942 Santa Anita was used to process up to 22,000 Japanese-Americans and housed them in converted horse stalls and in barracks before sending them to internment camps.
Fast-forwarding to 1969, the park saw another historical moment made even more pivotal considering the cultural climate when Tuesdee Testa became the first female jockey to win at a major American racetrack after winning at Santa Anita on March 1.
The park continued to flex its prestige when it not only hosted the equestrian events for the 1984 Olympic Summer Games but also the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in 1986. The latter is an international event that features the world’s greatest horses, jockeys and trainers with a winning prize of $1 million. It wouldn’t be the last time the park would host this event.
The introduction of the Tokyo City Cup at Santa Anita in 2005, a celebration of its sister track in Japan, expanded the park’s reach. In turn, every summer Ohi Racecourse holds “Santa Anita Week” and features the ”Santa Anita Trophy,” a one mile G3 race.
Even though the park is still a major spot for horse-racing, times have changed and so have the avenues of entertainment. No longer do families pack a lunch to watch a race in droves.
While Santa Anita Park struggles to resolve and overcome its horses’ injuries and fatalities, with both members of the public and political figures calling for the suspension of races, at the very least until a thorough investigation is done, the racetrack will remain as a major part of the community’s identity through its history alone.
What remains to be seen, aside from how the park will implement or respond to potential new safety measures, is how the park will evolve to help shape the future of the community. Some recent events have included hosting pop-up food stalls, which garnered new community interest. Maybe this can be a new way people can continue to picnic at the races.