04/15/2010 11:00PM

San Juan winners' list a who's who


ARCADIA, Calif. - They can knock down the grade, from one to whatever, and squeeze the life out of the purse to a Reagan-era low. What they can't do to the San Juan Capistrano, though, is rob the race of a history that smacks you in the face with every visit to its home at Santa Anita Park.

The meet ends Sunday with the 71st San Juan, appropriately run as the last race of the day. Bourbon Bay has emerged as the leading grass horse of the West Coast season, but he still will need to cover the 1 3/4 miles faster than the other 11 in the field to place his name alongside Olden Times, Cougar II, Exceller, Lemhi Gold, Great Communicator, and Kotashaan among the headline winners of the unique event.

Santa Anita's statuary alone attests to the San Juan's significance. Everywhere you turn in the paddock gardens there is a reminder. Seabiscuit, over there in the walking ring, won the race as a 4-year-old in 1937, in the 62nd start of his life. John Henry, enjoying his place by the fountain, made sure the 1980 San Juan was one of the dozen stakes he won at Santa Anita.

Charlie Whittingham would have been 97 last Tuesday. There was no room on his bronze bust to inscribe his 14 San Juans. As for the Four Tops on the other side of the hedge - Shoemaker, Longden, McCarron, and Pincay - they accumulated 18 San Juan Capistrano victories among them, beginning in 1950 when Johnny Longden won his first of five aboard Charles S. Howard's Noor.

The 1950 San Juan was run that year on March 4, one week after Noor beat Citation in the Santa Anita Handicap, while getting a 22-pound break in the weights. For the San Juan, Citation dropped two and Noor picked up seven, then went out and proved the Handicap was no fluke, beating Citation a nose after a ding-dong final half-mile.

By the end of 1950, Noor's record included 7 wins from 12 starts. He met and beat Citation four times - the weight spread eventually closed to one pound - won the American Handicap under 132 pounds, and split two decisions with Preakness winner Hill Prince, the darling of New York. Guess who was Horse of the Year?

Still, Noor was hailed as older male champion of 1950, and his victory in the San Juan was an important component. The running itself always bears fresh appreciation, especially from the vantage point of an eyewitness like Paul Lowry, who covered the race for the Los Angeles Times.

"It was the kind of a race that raised beads of perspiration on the brow, goose pimples on the neck, and set one's heart to pounding violently," Lowry wrote. "Veteran press box reporters who generally take their thrills in stride were weak as kittens.

"Down the track they pounded," Lowry went on, "stride for stride, rhythmic as the breakers, Citation slightly in front . . . And then it happened. Two strides from the wire Longden seemed to give a Herculean effort and virtually lift Noor over the line."

The Lowry clip is one of dozens collected by Charlotte Farmer, a retired executive secretary from the Northern California town of Redding, who has become the unofficial curator of Noor's legacy. The horse was inducted into the racing Hall of Fame in 2002, but that's in Saratoga Springs. For the last two years, Farmer has been engaged in an effort to secure Noor's resting place, near the town of Grass Valley, in perpetuity.

"Noor had a storybook life, filled with a lot of love and gentleness," Farmer said. "He was bred and raced by The Aga Khan, then brought to California by Charles Howard and trained by Burley Parke. But then, of all the gin joints in all the world, for Noor to end up in Grass Valley is a testament to the reputation of Loma Rica."

Grass Valley is located about 50 miles northeast of Sacramento. Noor spent his last 10 years at Loma Rica Ranch, managed at the time by the respected California horseman Henry Freitas. Among his crew was the young John Shirreffs, better known these days as the man who gets to train Zenyatta. Noor was euthanized at 29 in 1974 and was buried in the infield of the training track.

An e-mail inquiry from a fellow racing fan got Farmer wondering about Noor's resting place. The general location was confirmed by Dr. Jon Peek, the vet who had euthanized the aged champ. The first instinct of Farmer and her friends, including local Noor advocate Gae Seal, was to commission a statue to memorialize the grave. When the spectre of development arose, preserving the site became job one.

"A gentleman named Tom Nicholson, who owns a business in Grass Valley, has a ground penetrating radar unit," Farmer said. "For the love of Noor, he donated his time and equipment to locate the grave. John Shirreffs told us we were looking for a site about six feet deep, with its length facing north towards the barn. After a wide sweep of about a 150-foot radius, we found him, just where Dr. Peek said he'd be and facing just the way John described."

That was a month ago. Armed with the specific location, as well as the story of Noor's historic significance, Farmer and her allies are now attempting to get the gravesite ceded to the county by the Getty Trust, owners of the Loma Rica property, and then defined by the county commission as a protected landmark.

"I can't stop any development," Farmer said. "That's not my call. It's just that we don't want to have to deal with the grave coming into jeopardy each time the land might change ownership."

She has a point. A resting place, especially one belonging to a Hall of Fame racehorse, deserves to be at rest.