12/23/2007 1:00AM

Haines still learning on the job

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - It was a simple enough task. Just one more small detail to check off in preparation for the opening of the Santa Anita Park winter meet on Wednesday.

An outside firm was hired to spiff up the statuary in the paddock gardens, including the Tex Wheeler bronze of Seabiscuit, dedicated in 1941 with Seabiscuit himself in attendance, and these days commanding the center of the walking ring as the single most recognizeable decorative element of the track. As far as Santa Anita general manager George Haines was concerned, everything would go just fine, so he put it out of his mind - until he got a frantic call from a department chief urging him to go take a look.

Seabiscuit had been painted, a milk chocolate brown with a flashy black mane and tail.

"Can you believe it?" Haines said, still stunned, last Friday afternoon. "What could they have been thinking?"

It's probably best not to ask. No answer would have made sense, and it was easy enough to strip the paint and restore Seabiscuit to his lustrous bronze finish in plenty of time for the opener. The incident could be written off as just one more unforeseen headache any general manager of any major racetrack might face, or sadly viewed as further evidence of the deterioration of the skilled services industry.

Then again, the case of the painted 'Biscuit also may have provided an unintentional metaphor. Let's just say it was not the only time a recent Santa Anita project, undertaken with all good intentions, needed to be scrapped and done all over again.

As Haines spoke, tractors were grooming Santa Anita's modified version of Cushion Track in hopes that training could resume the following morning. There already had been an interruption of 17 days to deal with a drainage problem, and time was running out. But the track did open for workouts and more than 90 were recorded, a testimony to the pent-up tension suffered by both horsemen and management during the 11th hour ordeal.

The million-dollar facelift of a $10 million racing surface less than four months old was about as traumatic as it gets for a racetrack executive. Luckily for Haines, the rest of the prep work for the meet (other than the Seabiscuit makeover) went smoothly, which is quite an accomplishment when dealing with a facility that is approaching 75 years old.

George Haines II, age 53 and known as Deuce to his oldest racetrack friends, will awaken Wednesday to his 35th opening day as an employee of Santa Anita Park and his fourth as general manager. In an era of corporate racetrack ownership, with every executive suite seemingly equipped with a revolving door, Haines is from a different mold, ascending through the ranks, watching contenders come and go until he finally got his shot at the title.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Haines can tap into a personal history that embraces the the scope of the Santa Anita saga. His father, George Haines the first, went to work for the track in 1935 and was mutuels manager from 1954 until his retirement in 1984. He died in 1989, at the age of 72.

"My dad told me he'd put me through college," Haines said, nodding toward a photo of his father by the office door. "Then he gave me a job here and said, 'See?' He worked me hard, but I loved it, and that's how I paid for four years of school."

Haines matured in the days when there was no offtrack element to the parimutuel puzzle, no voucher system, no ATMs. Cash was king, and his father lorded over a mutuels department awash in greenbacks every day. In his final season, the elder Haines saw the 1984 Santa Anita handle top half a billion dollars - $501,554,814 to be exact - for the 91-day meet.

By comparison, the ontrack handle last year at Santa Anita was $181.8 million, certainly not chump change, but indicative of the monumental shift in the parimutuel landscape.

"My dad saw it coming," said Haines, who succeeded his father as head of mutuels. "He predicted the tail would be wagging the dog, and he said it in 1984, three years before we even had satellite wagering."

The key to every Santa Anita meet, besides the weather, is a successful opening day. For Haines and his staff, each opener is a challenge, and the woes of the racing surface laced the approaching meet with a feeling of desperation. But by now, there is not much Haines has not witnessed during his long tenure with Santa Anita.

There have been racing days lost to washed out tracks, the trauma of both a jockey walkout and a trainer boycott, races called because of power failures, construction projects that tiptoed right up to the last moment, and a series of failed turf courses. As manager of the mutuels department, Haines even experienced the horror of an opening day when a new tote system backfired, sending thousands of customers heading for the exits. Haines shakes his head at some of the memories.

"You can't come into this business thinking you know it all, because anything can happen," he said. "It's too big, too broad. I've seen good, talented people come in here and say they're going to change the world. My reaction is, 'Oh, another one of those.'

"The racetrack is unique and the racetrack customer is unique. And I still learn every day."