California tracks join to lure racing fans Classic Crown: Big money is at stake in three contests, two of which will be held in spectacular settings.

April 07, 1996|By Gary Dretzka | Gary Dretzka,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

California's three biggest tracks aren't out to steal the thunder from horse racing's time-honored Triple Crown. Still, by devising a neat little three-race series of their own, officials here are hoping they can create a little noise, and possibly divert some railbirds from their migratory path to Churchill Downs.

The MGM Grand Classic Crown links million-dollar races at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar in a series one organizer called the "Triple Crown of California." While the newly minted Classic Crown clearly will be short on tradition, no one need question the money at stake.

Thanks to the lure of a possible $2 million bonus, a winner of all three races would gallop away with $3.8 million. Short of a sweep, however, the winner of a single race (or two) would collect a minimum of $600,000 from each purse and be eligible to split a consolation bonus of $500,000.

For the traveler, the series provides an excuse -- if any were needed -- to visit three of the nation's most celebrated tracks, all of which routinely produce cards that highlight many of the sport's top horses, jockeys and trainers. That two of these venues also happen to be in magnificent corners of Southern California is a bonus.

Arcadia's Santa Anita Park -- just a long "Hail Mary pass" from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena -- provides the first leg of the series, with its classic Big 'Cap March 2.

The setting couldn't be more splendid. On a clear day, it's possible to enjoy a panoramic view of several snow-capped peaks strung along the San Gabriel range and the Angeles National Forest. Bettors at the 62-year-old facility can place their wagers at windows in the grandstand, or choose to relax on the infield lawn, rub elbows with the swells in the posh Turf and Baldwin clubs, or watch the horses being saddled behind the tailored hedges surrounding the paddock area, serenaded by mariachi music.

Cigar -- the all-everything horse of 1995 -- is expected to enter the Big 'Cap. Undefeated in his past 13 races, he is the early favorite to sweep all three races.

The Grade 1 event, known formally as the Santa Anita Handicap, has been run since the track's inaugural season in 1934-1935, although Thoroughbreds have frolicked here since the days of ++ Spanish ranchos.

Cigar is attraction

In a sport desperate for a superstar attraction, Cigar fits the bill perfectly. The mighty 6-year-old's presence should ensure a crowd of fans and media, if not lucrative payoffs on a win ticket.

In addition to the Big 'Cap, a 1 1/4 -mile test of older horses, the winter meeting at Santa Anita offers several previews of the colts and the occasional filly -- pointed toward the Kentucky Derby in early May. After the Triple Crown series back East, many of the battle-tested 3-year-olds will return west for the summer sessions at Hollywood Park and Del Mar.

Actually situated in blue-collar Inglewood, Hollywood Park is closer to the airport than it is to Sunset Strip. But this spring and early summer mecca for Thoroughbred racing in Southern California has lured celebrities and common folk alike since 1938.

On the list of original shareholders are such names as Jack and Harry Warner, Al Jolson, Raoul Walsh, Ralph Bellamy, Wallace Beery, Joan Blondell, Walt Disney, Irene Dunne and George Jessel. The closer one can get to the Turf Club and Directors' Room, the greater the odds of actually seeing any of today's movers and shakers.

Cooled by temperate air off the ocean, Hollywood Park offers a comfortable respite from the summer heat of the inland valleys. Its inviting infield of lush lawns, ponds, colorful waterfowl and bright flowers makes the otherwise undistinguished setting easy to enjoy.

The racetrack will play host to the second leg of the Classic Crown June 30: the Hollywood Gold Cup. It was one of the races Cigar claimed last summer, as part of his 10-win championship campaign.

Adjacent to the track is a golf center and California's premier card club, a casino open 24 hours a day.

NTC A hundred miles south of Los Angeles is the one-mile oval of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, where the final race in the series -- the Pacific Classic -- will be held Aug. 10. The lovely Spanish Mission-design racetrack, 20 minutes north of San Diego, is tucked into a valley swept by ocean breezes and bisected by a river.

Along with upstate New York's Saratoga course and Miami's Hialeah, Del Mar ranks as one of Thoroughbred racing's most appealing destinations. If a spectator gets the right seat in the grandstands, it's possible to enjoy a view of crashing waves, while handicapping some of the finest equestrian talent in the land.

When Del Mar opened in 1937, singer Bing Crosby was among those collecting tickets at the turnstile. He and his Tinseltown pals Pat O'Brien, Oliver Hardy, Gary Cooper and Joe E. Brown were among the early backers of the endeavor, which served as a party-filled escape from overbaked Hollywood.

The turf course is named after track habitue Jimmy Durante, as is a street bordering the racetrack.

Back then, publicist Eddie Read called Del Mar a place "where nobody's in a hurry but the horses." The same holds true today, as fans and competitors alike enjoy the leisurely pace and, until recently, trainers let their horses romp in the waves.

Since San Diego also is home to this year's Republican National Convention, it will be imperative to book ahead for rooms. If the Classic Crown series is headed for a sweep, housing could get even tighter than usual.

Santa Anita's season runs through April 22 and horses return to the Arcadia track in October for the six-week Oak Tree meeting; call (818) 574-7223. Hollywood Park conducts racing April 26 through July 22, and in a short meeting from mid-November to late December; call (310) 419-1555. Del Mar's season is from July 24 to Sept. 11; call (619) 755-1141.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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