04/16/2009 11:00PM

Heading toward an uncertain future


ARCADIA, Calif. - Since there is every possibility that Sunday's program at Santa Anita Park could be the last one under the ownership of Magna Entertainment Corp. - now in bankruptcy and ordered to liquidate assets to settle debts - the high notes of the meet take on a different sort of tone. Call it exit music.

The ownership has changed before, and racing went on without missing much of a beat. This time, though, the tensions wrought by the restrictions of bankruptcy have left nerves frayed and the future dangling. No one can say what will happen because no one really knows, even though serious suitors for the purchase of Santa Anita have made themselves known.

Hats off, then, to the men and women in the trenches who have soldiered on through the uncertainty. And how do you thank the fans who showed up for live racing during the meet in unexpectedly solid numbers? Free grandstand admission and cut-rate refreshments on Fridays was one way to do it.

"I heard a group of older gals out here laughing and talking about coming to the races on Fridays just for the dollar beers," said Gail McNeal, who operates the grandstand elevator and knows everything worth knowing. "That's what I call making new fans."

On the racetrack, Einstein's Santa Anita Handicap was an inspiring piece of work. He appeared to be the best horse going in, but not by much, and everything had to go right with trainer Helen Pitts and her team to pull it off. It was also nice that the courts finally released the purse, tied up as it was in the legal entanglements of Einstein's owners. Pitts and jockey Julien Leparoux certainly earned their share.

Pioneerof the Nile spent the entire winter doing nothing but winning race after race, and yet he departed California for Kentucky this week with no more fanfare than a mailman heading for the next house. The colt clearly suffers from low Beyer fatigue, having spent his career doing no more than he needs to do and running his best races on synthetics. Let's just figure that the Santa Anita Derby will not be the last big race he wins and leave it at that for now.

Garrett Gomez and Rafael Bejarano put on another good show, with Bejarano winning his second straight Santa Anita title (he is now 2 for 2) and runner-up Gomez winning with 26 percent of his rides. There was no avoiding third-place Joel Rosario, who did the heavy lifting with more than 500 mounts at the meet, but do not overlook the steady evolution of a mature Tyler Baze, who was a clear fourth in the standings.

On Sunday, among other closing-day festivities, two individuals of considerable impact will be celebrated.

Santa Anita management will honor as its employee of the meet Dr. Jill Bailey, the track veterinarian. As thankless jobs go, Bailey's ranks right up there with the guy who feeds the lions. For someone in her position to be asked to step forward and take a bow is very unusual, as well as a vote of confidence for both the significance of her role and the way she has done it. By the way, don't expect the low-key Bailey to bow.

"As painful as it is - and I know, because I'm an owner - taking a horse out of a race when a horse is borderline is so much more important than the amount of handle bet on that horse," said Santa Anita president Ron Charles. "The importance of her taking her job seriously, knowing that it is up to us to protect these horses, can't be minimized."

Because Monday, April 20, marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Charlie Whittingham, the trophy for the closing-day San Juan Capistrano Handicap will be presented by his wife, Peggy, and his daughter, Charlene Von Bluecher. This is entirely appropriate, since Whittingham's horses won the San Juan 14 times over a 32-year span, beginning in 1957 with Corn Husker and ending in 1989 with Nasr el Arab.

Whittingham would have celebrated his 96th birthday on April 13. But since he roamed the racing world for nearly seven decades, the game is still way ahead on points. His family and fans continue to be hopeful that someday, somewhere, there will be a museum of racing dedicated to the sport in California, with a spectacular sampling of Whittingham trophies and memorabilia as a cornerstone.

At 1 3/4 miles on the grass, the San Juan lives these days in a shadow of its former glory. Not even the recent addition of a race called the Marathon to the Breeders' Cup program will be able to reverse the suppression of stamina in the pool of talent that supplied such American-bred San Juan winners as Quicken Tree, Fiddle Isle, Exceller, John Henry, Lemhi Gold, Great Communicator, and Bien Bien.

The field arrayed on Sunday is headed by the Bobby Frankel/Juddmonte colt Midships, winner of the San Luis Rey last time out in only his third American start. In its current Grade 2 state, though, with its $200,000 purse now slashed back to 1981 levels, the San Juan pales by comparison to most of the 14 in Whittingham's collection. Charlie would have looked at the devalued event, given a shake of his shiny dome . . . and won it anyway.