12/05/2001 1:00AM

Racing took early hit in wartime


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Can it be only 60 years? Seems more like . . . an eternity. The date of Dec. 7 used to stand alone as a symbol of despicable ambush and lives lost. Now it must share the calendar with Sept. 11, and America is at war again. At least, that's what we have been told.

It will take a while to sink in. Americans take pride in their insulation.

The effects of a war, whether hardships or mere inconvenience, need time to trickle down to the rank and file, like high fashion, or a cut in corporate taxes.

But imagine an America in which tires and gasoline are rationed, in which sugar and shoes are luxury items, in which cars are equipped with louvered headlights to ensure a blanket of darkness against threats from above.

"Our windows at home were covered with blackout shades to be used at night, so the Japanese could not see our city at night if they came to bomb us," wrote racing fan Elsie Erickson in her memoirs.

"I remember one night when my father was at work, the sirens went off and we were on alert for an attack. It was in the summer and it was hot. My mother turned off all the house lights and she and I laid on the floor in front of our opened front door, watching the block warden go up and down the street making sure everyone was blacked out. I was sure scared that night!"

Elsie Erickson is my mother. She grew up in San Diego.

In the wake of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, America's West Coast became suddenly vulnerable. Industrial complexes and public gatherings were immediately placed under scrutiny by the War Department. Horse racing, which ranked alongside collegiate football in terms of popularity, was an obvious target. In California, it was immediately shut down.

"I have no idea when it may be possible for Santa Anita to run a meeting again," said Dr. Charles H. Strub, general manager of the Los Angeles Turf Club, in February 1942.

"I am reconciled to the fact that there will be no racing at Hollywood Park for the duration of the war," said Jack Mackenzie, general manager of Hollywood Park.

"Let's win the war first and think about racing later," said William P. Kyne, general manager of the California Jockey Club. "The government can use Bay Meadows for any purpose it may wish."

For nearly five years, my mother and her parents were deprived of racing at Del Mar. The coastal track was used as a U.S. Navy training ground. Hollywood Park was commandeered by Northrop Aircraft and North American Aviation as a warehouse facility, while Bay Meadows served as a base for cavalry and quartermaster units. Santa Anita became a processing camp for Japanese-American internees, then later was converted to an assembly plant.

Kyne eventually negotiated a deal with the War Department to allow Bay Meadows to re-open in late 1942, with the stipulation that all but 8 percent of the track profits would go to war relief funds.

Kyne also was required to raise the wage of track employees by 15 percent, with 10 percent of the raise paid in war bonds. He could not hire men under the age of 45 who were otherwise capable of working in war-related jobs, which led David Alexander of The Blood-Horse to observe, "Kyne may be forced to use many women as mutuels clerks, ushers and other help. And he will have to pay them at a 15 percent higher wage than was paid at the last meeting he ran." What a concept.

Hollywood Park was allowed to reopen on Nov. 1, 1944, for a meet of 34 days, even though Southern California continued to be the hub of wartime industrial production, and "essential" jobs were given manpower priority.

"What is there essential about a race track?" wondered an editorial in the Long Beach Independent. "It just doesn't make sense."

An average of 25,822 fans a day (nearly four times the current meet) thought it made perfect sense, and they bet an average of $1.7 million on each of the 34 programs.

The Hollywood meet closed on Dec. 16, 1944. One week later, James Byrnes, War Mobilization Director, issued an order to close down all U.S. race meets beginning on Jan. 1, 1945. Elements in the eastern press, where most tracks had been allowed to race during the war years, blamed the shutdown on increased absenteeism at local defense plants during the Hollywood meet. This was pure hogwash, since the War Manpower Commission's own figures showed an actual decrease in absenteeism in November of 1944.

The real culprits were the Germans. Their counter-offensive in the Ardennes Forest let the air out of the Allies' giddy march toward victory in Europe. In late December of 1944, the war still appeared far from over, and racing deserved no further dispensations. For the next four months, the game went silent.

The Germans finally surrendered on May 7, 1945. Five days later, racing in America resumed at Narragansett Park in Rhode Island, where the first race went off at 2:30 p.m., Eastern War Time.