03/11/2011 4:48PM

Jumping from tsunami to CARMA to mariachi bands


Now that the West Coast has survived both the Santa Anita Handicap and the distant ripples of Japan’s tragic earthquake and tsunami, it is time to spring forward – both literally and figuratively. Don’t forget those clocks.

I got this from Itsuko Goda, a racing journalist who lives with her family in a Tokyo suburb, after inquiring about their well-being:

“My family is okay, having supply of electricity and water, while the cell phone is not working well.”

Her English is much better than my Japanese. Under such circumstances I might be lucky to get out a few grunts and moans. Since the epicenter of the quake was 250 miles to the northeast, early reports of damage in metropolitan Toyko were not as catastrophic as could be imagined. Still, those of us on the West Coast who share the Pacific Rim with the Japanese always feel the cold hand on the shoulder at such a violent shrug of the earth’s fragile crust.

“Tsu” means “harbor” in Japanese and “nami” means “wave.” However, those of us burdened with too much horse memory hear the word and think of a near black colt who roamed California in the mid-1980s and provided more than his share of excitement.

Tsunami Slew was a member of Seattle Slew’s second crop. A ferocious speed horse who somehow managed to harness his worst instincts, he was bred by Bonnie Heath, raced for David and Beth Whelan and was trained by Eddie Gregson. Tsunami Slew won the Burke Handicap when it was a Grade 1 event and the Del Mar Derby. Laffit Pincay called him one of the best grass horses he ever rode, especially on those days Tsunami Slew got the best of his personal demons and ran like the wind.

But enough about him.

Frank Stronach made a big deal, and rightfully so, of Gulfstream Park’s commitment last fall to matching funds for the one-third of 1 percent taken out of the handle that goes to retirement and placement programs for racehorses who are otherwise without homes, once their careers have ended. A board of directors was set up that included both horsemen and Gulfstream management to administer the program.

California deserves the same consideration, and it was too bad a similar program could not have been established out West in parallel with the Florida commitment. Retirement programs in California rely on private donations and a trickling of contributions from the companies that own and operate the racetracks.

The only institutionalized funding comes from the CARMA program of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, which dedicates 3/10 of 1 percent of purses to be earmarked for retirement facilities and programs, and to get that through, there had to be an “opt-out” provision. Fortunately, the vast majority of owners have not taken that alternative.

“It hasn’t been discussed for us,” said Santa Anita president George Haines. “But that doesn’t mean it might not happen.”

Talk about karma – the other kind that is. Santa Anita, having emerged from the bankruptcy of its parent company Magna Entertainment a much leaner operation, seems hardly awash in lavish expenditures these days. But jeez, did the mariachis have to go? If there is a sound associated with Santa Anita, besides Trevor Denman and Joe Hernandez, it is the lilting blast of the traditional Mexican street music that has greeted fans inside the gates on big days for as long as anyone wants to remember.

Alas, there were no mariachis on opening day this season. No mariachis for the Sunshine Millions. And when this fan entered the gates last Saturday to celebrate the Santa Anita Handicap card, there was silence. Only the splash of the fountain and the lonely sight of the John Henry statue deprived of the whirling, pounding gaiety brought by those musicians. No wonder they had only 23,000 in the house. Word must have gotten out.

There are plans, I’m told, of a mariachi appearance during the Santa Anita Derby festivities on April 9. This is good news, even if they will be arriving a month late. Certainly, for fans disappointed by the Santa Anita Handicap’s controversial ruling, the sound of blatting trumpets and strumming guitars would have helped make the day at least a bit more palatable.

The running of the Santa Anita Handicap – which went in the books last Saturday forever to be tainted by a split decision in the stewards’ stand – always serves as a demarcation line in the competitive climate out West. From now on – or at least until early June – the attention will be focused on 3-year-olds almost to the exclusion of all other divisions. As far as California is concerned, only the Santa Anita Derby remains as a race that will catch the national imagination.

For better or worse, this year’s Derby crop in California is under more scrutiny than in recent years. That is because Santa Anita’s synthetic course has been replaced by a sandy loam. Two years ago, I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, and Papa Clem emerged from synthetic racing and training out West to make favorable impressions on races along the Triple Crown trail. Last year it was Lookin At Lucky who emerged from the California synthetic wars to win a Preakness and a championship. That’s a pretty high bar for the class of 2011 to jump, dirt or plastic.