03/05/2009 12:00AM

Horse sense realizes mountain beauty


ARCADIA, Calif - For one thing, the place didn't look any different. On Thursday morning, as the news of Magna Entertainment's bankruptcy filing made the rounds, there seemed to be no impact on the lush peace of the Santa Anita paddock gardens. The classic fountain, etched with the names of winners of the Santa Anita Derby and Handicap, was vigorously pumping, and the eastward vistas from the grandstand seats still offered the iconic California contrast of towering palms in the foreground and snowcapped Mt. Baldy in the distance.

On the ground, there were people busy preparing both horses and racetrack for a big Saturday card topped by the Santa Anita Handicap and the Santa Anita Oaks. The financial crisis at the mothership seemed far, far away. As far away as Canada, even. After all, wasn't the reality in the brick and mortar of a facility nearly 75 years old? Or was it all an elaborate exercise in denial, with an awful outcome just over the horizon as the crew prepared for dancing on the deck of the Titanic.

For some time, horse racing has been vulnerable to the same forces that have wreaked havoc in the wider economic atmosphere. Everything is in play and nothing is sacred. At one point, Santa Anita morphed from a family-owned sports dynasty into a real estate investment trust with a license to print money. The Strub family sold out to another REIT run by a company that specialized in long-term health care facilities. They in turn cashed out to a guy who thought that owning racetracks was a natural extension of running a racing and breeding operation, or a car-parts plant, and worshiped at the altar of acquisition and deferred debt.

Nobody ever said no.

Not long after Frank Stronach bought Santa Anita Park, for $126 million in December of 1998, he unveiled his ambitious plans for the track at a cocktail party held in the Chandelier Room of the Turf Club, attended by owners, trainers, jockeys, media, and anyone else who happened to wander by. There, in a model fit for Disney, was Stronach's giddy imaginings of a restaurant with the world's longest bar, upscale villas replacing the hillside turf course, and a concert hall that would accommodate all manner of entertainment, including can-can girls. "The mountains," said Stronach, "can stay."

It is those very mountains, unique among American racetrack backdrops, that have captivated the attention of the horse named Einstein this week, as he prepares to make his West Coast debut in the Santa Anita Handicap. A seasoned pro, with top credentials on both grass and dirt, Einstein had the undivided attention of trainer Helen Pitts on the backstretch Thursday morning as he enjoyed the California sun.

"I don't know what it is, but he is just fascinated by those mountains," Pitts said as Einstein nibbled at her hand, searching for peppermints. "He's just not sure what to make of them."

Before anyone points out the obvious, and makes a crack about a horse named Einstein trying to win the biggest race at a track now subject to the orders of bankruptcy court, please note that he is also owned by two attorneys - William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham - only recently released from jail and still fighting charges that they stole millions from clients in a class action case involving the weight loss drug fen-phen. You can't make this stuff up.

Einstein has had the good sense to cooperate with Pitts at nearly every turn, from his youth as a Brazilian expatriate to his banner 2008 campaign, during which he won three major events and more than $1.1 million.

"The name suits him to a T," said Pitts. "He's way too smart for his own good. He's a late foal by the South American calendar, so he's really a young 6 1/2, even though he's considered 7 here. And I don't like to mention his age around him. Anyway, he had his best season last year, so he just seems to be getting better."

A shot at the Santa Anita Handicap, contested over the synthetic Pro-Ride surface, is a natural extension of Einstein's journey, which has included such important events as the Arlington Million, a couple of Donns, and the Stephen Foster, in which he finished second last year to Curlin.

Pitts was Curlin's original trainer, which made the Foster bittersweet, but she also has 50 horses in training in Florida and Kentucky after only a few years at the head of a stable. She spent the week in California, however, getting on Einstein to make sure he took to the foreign ground.

"He was very comfortable on it from the start," Pitts said. "He's adapted to just about every surface we've ever tried. But here he's just kind of floated, like, 'Where's it been all my life?' "

Pitts isn't about to make any predictions about Einstein's chances in a 14-horse Santa Anita Handicap field that features local talents Colonel John, Cowboy Cal, Matto Mondo, Magnum, and Blue Exit. All she can promise is that he will run his race. He always does.

"This sucker's got so much heart," Pitts said. "He just loves the game."

And don't forget those mountains.