04/05/2013 9:45PM

Private Eyes

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The headline in the New York Times read, "Horses Running at Santa Anita Are Under Surveillance," which is interpreted by most readers as, "Trainers Running Horses at Santa Anita Are Under Suspicion," a reasonable interpretation given the general understanding of what it means to be under surveillance. Suspected terrorists are under surveillance. Suspected drug lords are under surveillance. All teenage boys should be under surveillance.

Congratulations, then, to the confederacy of well-meaning souls responsible for the latest token stab at a pre-race security scheme that has about as much integrity as a "Beware of Dog" sign hanging on the gate of an empty yard. The 72-hour security guard "surveillance" of the nine horses entered for the Santa Anita Derby, stabled at both Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, was pushed by the Golden Eagle Farm connections of the Bruce Headley-trained Storm Fighter (15-1 on the DRF morning line), green-lighted by Santa Anita management, and blessed with understandable reluctance by the California Horse Racing Board. Nobody likes to be shown up in public by someone else doing what is supposed to be your job.

And make no mistake -- poorly conceived and pushed at the 11th hour as it was, the pressure to augment Santa Anita Derby pre-race security was meant as chin music for the CHRB. Bogged down the last several years in squabbles over racing surfaces, track ownership, and takeout, the board has made few significant advances in backstretch security. In a statement, racing board chairman David Israel promised that efforts to increase both the reality and perception of pre-race security was of immediate concern. Hope so.

The trainers whose horses were to be surveilled -- Bob Baffert, Paul Aguirre, Doug O'Neill, Peter Miller, Headley, Myung Kwon Cho and Jerry Hollendorfer (until Hollendorfer's Hear the Ghost was scratched) -- were to a man just fine with the 66 extra hours of security guard presence tacked on to the customary six hours of pre-race monitoring maintained by the CHRB. Of course they were. If asked they also would have been unanimous in support of Motherhood and Apple Pie. Any protest would have been greeted with a chorus of "what's he got to hide?" from the torch-carrying horseplayers gathered at the castle gates.

It is an uncomfortable but widely accepted reality that certain rights are forfeited with the acceptance of a license to own, train, ride or otherwise handle Thoroughbred horses in a state-controlled pari-mutuel endeavor. In that spirit, anyone should recognize the need for unannounced security sweeps when there is proper cause. It's a good thing that from time to time a barn gets raided, while urine and blood should be tested to the limits of reasonable scrutiny. And if there are patterns of wild swings in form, or clusters of breakdowns or fatalities, the investigative branch of a racing board or commission needs to be specific in its targeting, aggressive in pursuit of answers, and publicly forthcoming with the results of any inquiry. 

As it turned out, Santa Anita pleaded poverty and the CHRB cited procedure, so Golden Eagle Farm ended up footing the extra security bill. Quoted in The Times, Golden Eagle's general manager Janine McCullough got a little hyperbolic with the justification for her Santa Anita Derby security concerns.

“It is virtually a ‘win and you’re in’ race for the most prestigious and important of all American races for 3-year-olds,” McCullough said. “It has enormous financial impact when it comes to breeding. There has never been as much importance or pressure to win the Santa Anita Derby, and with so much at stake, why not be transparent for the public, especially after the sport has suffered so many black eyes?”

Among other things, there has always been pressure to win the Santa Anita Derby, like in 1991 when the Golden Eagle star Best Pal lost a close one to Dinard, or in 1999 when Baffert saddled Golden Eagle's General Challenge for the victory. Its winner, by the way, has never had any trouble getting into the Kentucky Derby, whether on points or earned dollars. Of greater concern, though, as the race approached on Saturday, was the precedent of one opponent paying for the security guards looking over the shoulders of the other players in the race. Read that aloud to hear how bad it sounds, then wonder about this -- since the extra manpower was technically private cops without CHRB mandate, who was policing them?

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Roger Ebert and Dennis Patterson died this week. One could train and both could write, and the world is a better place for their time spent among us.

Ebert helped elevate cultural criticism to consumer friendly language and gave the thumb a fresh lease on life. Here is one of my favorite Ebert reviews, of the 1956 caper classic "The Killing," set in large part at Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo:

http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120109/REVIEWS08/120109985/1023

That was Dennis Patterson's Bay Meadows, his neighborhood track ripped so rudely from the fabric of Northern California's Thoroughbred culture in 2008 by the same land development company that plans to do the same thing with Hollywood Park. Patterson, 77, was not really a household name, but he was still training stakes winners like Run It and Carbonite late in his career. The respect he enjoyed as a consummate horseman was universal among his peers, and to visit his shedrow was to understand how the smallest of details add up to a barn run with care and class. It would be overly melodramatic to say that when Bay Meadows closed, part of Patterson died. But his life changed suddenly at age 70, faced with long commutes across the Bay Bridge to train his horses at Golden Gate, and he talked about it with his usual self-deprecating charm in this column from 2008: http://www.drf.com/news/piece-history-about-crumble

Patterson would call from time to time to talk about just about anything that came to mind. He wished a few things had turned out better, but when pressed he declined to complain. He figured a life spent in horse racing was about all a guy could ask for, as long as he showed it the respect it deserved.