09/26/2012 3:03PM

Hovdey: Some new stakes names ring true, others clang


The people who run Santa Anita Park have every reason to enjoy positive vibes as the 2012 fall meet begins on Friday.

Momentum is on their side. The Del Mar summer meet was an unqualified smash in terms of handle and attendance, reaffirming that even in these tough economic times there is still a market for horse racing presented in a quality stadium with professional referees.

Then there is the sound fans will hear as they enter Santa Anita’s sun-drenched paddock gardens in the coming weeks. That’s Breeders’ Cup buzz, heralding the return to Southern California of racing’s best event on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2 and 3.

There will be the usual giveaways and doodads to distract patrons from the price of hotdogs and beer. But the really big deal, a true feast for the eyes, will take place this Saturday when the curtain is dropped in front of the paddock fountain to reveal Nina Kaiser’s glorious, life-size bronze statue of Zenyatta.

Fittingly, Saturday also will mark what is being billed in the Santa Anita condition book as the first running of the Zenyatta Stakes, which is true in name only. The mile and a sixteenth race on the main track – featuring Include Me Out, Switch, and Star Billing – is in reality the 20th running of the race formerly known as the Lady’s Secret, won in the past by such stalwarts as Hollywood Wildcat, Sharp Cat, and Azeri. Zenyatta herself won it in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

The rechristened Lady’s Secret is part of a complete house-cleaning of what had become a deeply familiar collection of major late-season events formerly presented at Santa Anita by the Oak Tree Racing Association, a non-profit horsemen’s group. Oak Tree’s long-term lease with Santa Anita was terminated two years ago as a result of the bankruptcy that moved ownership the track from Magna Entertainment, chaired by Frank Stronach, to the Stronach Group, chaired by Frank Stronach.

Oak Tree, for those curious, still exists as a charitable foundation but is essentially homeless as a racing association. Three races were offered at the end of the Del Mar meet under the Oak Tree banner, and several stakes at the upcoming Hollywood Park fall meet are being enriched by Oak Tree to help satisfy its continued status as a charitable entity. Whether Santa Anita’s fall meet can match Oak Tree’s many millions in donations to the industry remains to be seen.

As far as the raft of new race names are concerned, let it be stated clearly that a racetrack ownership has the absolute right to call their events anything they want. And since the conditions of the major events remain the same, the American Graded Stakes Committee never blinked. Name them for the Seven Deadly Sins for all they care.

Still, Santa Anita officials are braced for a learning curve, not to mention blowback from wiseguys with newspaper columns who will not be able to resist lobbing potshots when a particular name clangs like a cracked bell.

Like, for instance, the Awesome Again Stakes, formerly the Goodwood, to be run on Saturday with Game On Dude leading the field. The Canadian-bred Awesome Again was a fine racehorse and has become a very successful stallion. His connection to the track is a head-scratcher, though, since he broke his maiden at Hollywood Park and thereafter competed in Toronto, New York, Illinois, Kentucky, and Louisiana for his owner and breeder, Frank Stronach. What am I missing?

There can be no argument with removing the Oak Tree label from a number of races, and their replacements have a ring, including the Chandelier (for the Oak Leaf), the Twilight (for the Oak Tree Derby) and the Arroyo Seco (for the Oak Tree Mile). Arroyo Seco, Spanish for “dry gulch,” is a fabled avenue not far from the track.

I am sorry to report, however, that the treasured Yellow Ribbon for fillies and mares on the turf is now the Rodeo Drive, which will have the distinction of being mispronounced by the 99 percent of the country that shops at Target and WalMart. (You say ro-DAY-oh, I say toe-MAH-toe.)

California racing history took a hit with the erasure from the stakes list of Norfolk and Ancient Title, both members of the Hall of Fame. The Norfolk is now the FrontRunner, named for the track’s signature restaurant, while the Ancient Title has become the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, an ambitiously titled race now doomed to be won by a longshot with a low Beyer.

Finally, there was the predictable cleansing of notable individuals honored by their link to Oak Tree. The Jack Goodman, which was once the Sunny Slope, was originally renamed the Americana (according to the media guide) but then changed to the Tim Conway, although at first glance it is not clear if it is meant to recognize the racehorse-owning philanthropist and Emmy Award-winning comedian or his son, an L.A.-based talk-radio host and close friend of Santa Anita CEO Mark Verge.

The Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship, named for the founding president of Oak Tree, is now the John Henry Turf Championship, and it’s about time, since John Henry won the race three years running when it was the Oak Tree Invitational. There was also a John Henry Handicap at Hollywood Park from 1986 through 1994. Nice to have him back.

The name of Lou Rowan, also among Oak Tree’s founders, was purged as well. This is too bad because, like Hirsch, Rowan’s impact transcended the confines of the Oak Tree brand. A native Californian, Rowan was educated at Oxford, ran his family’s insurance and real estate company, and was among the original shareholders of Santa Anita in 1934. Rowan died of a heart attack on Sept. 30, 1988, while playing tennis. He was 77.

Rowan’s best horses won Santa Anita’s most important events, including the Santa Anita Derby, the Santa Anita Handicap, the San Juan Capistrano, and the Santa Margarita. Chief among them was Quicken Tree, one of only three horses to have won both the Santa Anita Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup (the others were John Henry and Affirmed).

Rowan wore the mantle of the Pasadena patrician with a self-deprecating ease, and no one would have argued had the Lou Rowan Stakes for fillies and mares retained his name. Instead, the Rowan henceforth will be called the L.A. Woman Stakes, inspired by the rock ‘n roll sensibilities of racing secretary Rick Hammerle. And he might have gotten it right. It was rumored that Rowan, a patron of the arts who fought in George Patton’s Third Army, was a big fan of The Doors.