10/19/2008 11:00PM

BC Journal: Paint horses and a changing paradise

Jay Hovdey and Marcus Hersh roam the Santa Anita backstretch during Breeders' Cup Week in this exclusive online column.

Jay Hovdey, Oct. 19:

ARCADIA, Calif. - I like to think of Santa Anita Park as my home track. It was the first place I worked in the business, way back in 19(transmission garbled), when publicity director Dan Smith took a flyer on a kid from Orange County, by way of Arizona State, who seemed to know the difference between Dr. Fager and Doc Strub, and was willing to work for $37.50 a day.

Today, for that princely sum, you could buy four corned beef sandwiches in the Santa Anita clubhouse, a Breeders' Cup 25 California Design sweatshirt, or about 20 shares of Magna Entertainment Company stock. I would probably go for the corned beef, but check with your broker. I hear there's been some action in the market.

Hopefully, that will be the last time you get "the way it used to be" out of me. But in case I slip, my Breeders' Cup Journal colleague Marcus Hersh is on board to supply a wide-eyed and refreshingly youthful take on this fourth Breeders' Cup to be run at Santa Anita. He never saw the track before last Friday. But then, I've never been to Hawthorne, unless you mean the town next to Inglewood . . .

Most horses are bedded on straw or shavings. Get Funky lives on newsprint, shredded for his protection and treated to supress allergies. On Sunday morning, after his final work for the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, he was rustling around in his pile of odd clippings and devouring a late breakfast. John Sadler, his trainer, has a feeling that Get Funky is his best chance to get off his Breeders' Cup duck, and rightly so. If ever there were a home-field advantage, the local runners in the Turf Sprint would have it, since the race will be run down the turning hillside course and across a patch of synthetic Pro-Ride before joining up with the main grass oval. There's nothing like it anywhere else.

"Once a horse likes it coming down the hill, they continue to like it," Sadler said. "Baffle, Century's Envoy - Bellski, the filly I trained, never lost on it. Is it any surprise that California Flag jumped out there the other day? He's a brother to Cambiocorsa, and she loved it."

Sadler has been California's leading trainer this year, both in terms of wins and headlines (see steroids, Del Mar). He has four different winners of Breeders' Cup "Win and You're in as Long as You Pay the Humongous Starting Fees" races, so it stands to reason he'd be reasonably pleased about his chances with a couple of his seven runners, including Eddie Read winner Whatsthescript in the BC Mile.

"You tell youself you've got the best in California in a particular division, then you get to looking at the records of some of the horses showing up," Sadler said. "Take Goldikova in the Mile. Let's see . . . second to Zarkava, maybe the greatest filly ever over there? We all sat in my office and watched the Arc. Wow." . . .

Tout of the Day (some days more than one): Veteran jock and all-around horseman Goncalino Almeida was riding by on the Juddmonte Farm beast Champs Elysses, on their way back to the Bobby Frankel barn. He said hello, then patted his horse and said, "This is the winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic. You'll see. You'll see." . . .

The Santa Anita backstretch is compact compared to most major tracks. It's a short walk from Sadler's barn around the corner and down a couple barns to No. 27, where, long after galloping his two miles, Curlin was tied to the back of his stall in Barn 27 getting his legs done up in soft cloth and TLC. Like a healthy horse, he delicately pointed a hind toe and shifted his weight, then after a while pointed the other. His tail descended to the straw and curled in a little red pile. Scott Blasi, the man in charge when Steve Asmussen is away, was asked if Curlin would be getting a trim.

"You cannot get near his tail," Blasi said. "He would tear your head off."

Outside, in the middle of the walking ring Curlin shares with the horses trained by Brian Koriner, California Flag had his nose in a paper plate smeared with non-toxic, water-based paint. Red and gold, mostly. California trainers can be unconventional, but this was different. As it turned out, Koriner was obliging a request from Sharla Sanders, who was representing the California Equine Retirement Foundation. Her Equine Expressions artwork features the snuffling nose paintings of many outstanding racehorses, stamped by their hoofprint in black and garnished with a lock of tail. The Tin Man's "work" goes for $1,200, Lava Man's for $1,100, and downward from there.

"Brian uses a lot of red in his stable colors," Sanders said, explaining her color scheme. "Red and gold are also fast and fiery." California Flag beat Get Funky in the Morvich and will try to do it again in the Turf Sprint. Koriner stablemate and Vosburgh Stakes winner Black Seventeen did his painting earlier. Black and red, what else. Sanders and colleagues Teresa Olivares and Marti Guzman noted that all proceeds go toward the care of the 77 retired racehorses at CERF.

"Some trainers are a little hesitant," Sanders said. "I'm sure it depends on the horse. Of course, we'd love to get Curlin."

Blasi, when approached by Sanders, was polite but firm. "Not this week," he said. Asked about possibly taking a lock of that red tail, Blasi added without a blink, "That's not going to happen."

Marcus Hersh, Oct. 18-19:

ARCADIA, Calif. - Understand that I came into Los Angeles from Chicago on Friday night. Racing in Chicago this time of year means Hawthorne Race Course, and while I like going to Hawthorne, Hawthorne somewhat accurately represents glamour’s antithesis. Think Waste Management site, stacks of shipping containers, a nickel plant, etc.

I often bicycle across town from home to the track. Did so just last week wearing a yellow slicker to block a cold pelting rain, dodging semi-trailers on Cicero Avenue, where you can slide through a mostly hidden iron gate leading from the sidewalk onto the Hawthorne property. A wave to the ancient security guard, and I was through the stable gate and onto the backstretch - where bike tires slid into four inches of sucking goo. Wet, sweaty, tired, I rode about 100 yards and could progress no farther - stuck in the mud.

So, a major wow factor came into play upon arriving at Santa Anita just after dawn Saturday morning. Here, I might refer to the late 19th century real estate speculator Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin, who is said to have exclaimed upon seeing some 8,000 acres of land that he would purchase in this area, “By gads! This is paradise!”

Yep - pretty much. Those San Gabriel Mountains you see in the background of your Santa Anita simulcast feed? They look good - really good - in the day’s first light. The wax palms in the infield remind you that in a couple of hours, when the sun is all the way up, it’s going to be 80-some degrees. Just to the northeast is the Los Angeles Arboretum, where the blooming tree of the month is the showy pink chorisia speciosa.

And the horseflesh! There went the Godolphin fillies Cocoa Beach and Music Note. Indian Blessing buzzed past. Ginger Punch and Ventura both breezed. You could even, before the sun came all the way up, trick yourself into thinking the brown substance covering the main track was good, old-fashioned dirt, not the newly installed, fibrous and rubbery Pro-Ride.

“Some horses like it, some don’t seem to as much,” Bobby Frankel said Saturday, giving a signature Frankel shoulder-shrug. Ginger Punch had gone okay, not spectacularly, over the Pro-Ride. The Frankel-trained Ventura, on the other hand . . . Frankel’s eyes brightened at her work.

I walked and talked with Frankel onto the backstretch. Not to be seen was even a single stack of shipping containers. Todd Pletcher’s assistant Mike "Whitey" McCarthy came wandering out of a barn, followed by a gallop boy I knew from Fair Grounds. Stopped to chat as Wait a While was being readied for a turf breeze (in which she looked good), and Pletcher came walking out.

“Sorry to be bothering your help,” said I.

“Why? You’ve been bothering us for 10 years,” quipped he.

See? That Teflon facade does conceal a playful interior. Still, it was duly noted that not a hair rested out of place on the Pletcher pate. I was thinking how that fit right in with the perfect surrounding landscape, the palms on the infield, and so on, when I walked round a corner, and there behind the deacon’s office was a man singing loudly in Spanish while chasing around in a hunched run a rooster and three hens. Aha! A backstretch is just a backstretch, whether 25 miles from Hollywood or not. And what was that sticking up into the sky above the Bruce Headley barn? A hulking parking garage crowned with a bright sign for Dave & Buster's, where, according to the company’s web site, one can “Eat, Drink, Play!”

Yes, a Westfield shopping mall was plopped down next to the racetrack back in the early '70s; the parking garage sprang up much more recently. If developers have their way, the track’s parking lot butting up to the jocks' room and paddock here will house still another sprawling mall. In other words, the dusty, open-country scenes one sees in the grayed press-box photos of legendary Santa Anita runners are relics now.

“You know, where that mall is now was one of our greatest assets,” Headley said Sunday morning, and because he first laid eyes on Santa Anita in 1939, Headley has earned an historical opinion. “There was an elevated three-quarters-mile training track, Anita Chaquita. All the Derby horses that came from here, all the great horses got started there. All the big farms broke their horses there. When they built that shopping center, that ended the advantage we had.”

Old school? Headley is old school times infinity. He still gallops his own stock, points out proudly the millions of dollars earned by horses he bought for thousands. If racing were to roll back medication rules to hay, oats, and water, were to revert to surfaces comprised of California sand and loam, Headley’s beam might light up most of Los Angeles County.

Give the San Gabriels a couple million years, and those mountains will be ground down to dust, too. Racing changes much faster - even in paradise.