02/05/2004 12:00AM

Traces of Strub (as in tube) survive

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There was a time when the Strub Stakes stood shoulder to shoulder with the Santa Anita Handicap as the premier prizes of the winter meet. The Strub was special, requiring the cream of the nation's 4-year-olds to pass one final, searching test before moving on to competition against their elders.

At 1 1/4 miles on the main track, the first 40 runnings of the race showcased the likes of Two Lea, Round Table, Miz Clementine, Damascus, Ancient Title, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Precisionist, Snow Chief, Ferdinand, and Alysheba. By 1986 - one year after Precisionist, Greinton, and Gate Dancer staged the greatest running ever - the Strub more than justified its raise in fiscal status to a $500,000 purse.

But after the 1997 running, the Strub was demoted to Grade 2 status. In response, Santa Anita management reduced the distance of the Strub to a more mundane 1 1/8 miles. Then, in 2002, with new Magna management in control, the Strub purse was cut to $400,000, then again to $300,000 for the 2004 running.

In the meantime, the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic was plopped down in close proximity, discouraging the owners of top California- and Florida-breds from even considering the Strub. Hard to blame them, opting to run for three times the purse against half the competition, which is exactly what prime 4-year-olds Southern Image and Excess Summer did just two weeks ago.

That means they will both be watching from the sidelines on Saturday when During, Buddy Gil, Toccet, and Midas Eyes head a field of 11 entered for the 57th running of the Strub. The participation of Southern Image and Excess Summer would have made a good race even better for Santa Anita's fans, who have every right to wonder where their old Strub Stakes went.

Of course, if it doesn't bother a guy wearing the name of the race on his driver's license, maybe the rest of us shouldn't be concerned. John Strub, grandson of Santa Anita's founder, knows the racing business well enough just to be glad the place is still standing at all.

Strub's grandfather, Dr. Charles H. Strub, opened Santa Anita on Christmas Day, 1934, and ran it like a major league sports franchise. John Strub's father, Robert P. Strub, headed the Santa Anita executive suite from 1960 until 1993, until he became disabled by the effects of Lou Gehrig's Disease. He died in May of that year.

"My dad loved the racetrack," said Strub, who will be on hand Saturday with several other members of the family. "It was his life. At the very end, when he couldn't get out of bed to go to the racetrack and do the things he liked, it was a personal torture."

Both John Strub and his brother, Robert, served as directors of the Los Angeles Turf Club, the state-licensed company that runs the Santa Anita meet. John prepped for his term on the board with an MBA from Pepperdine and a nine-year stint on the board of the Santa Anita Operating company from 1986 through 1995. He even walked hots for trainer John Sadler to get his feet wet on the backstretch. Strub left the board after the track was purchased by the real estate division of the upscale senior care company Meditrust in April 1997. Magna took control at the end of 1998.

Traces of the Strub family legacy can still be found at Santa Anita, beyond the annual running of the race named in honor of the founder and his son. While visiting racetracks abroad, "Doc" Strub scoured the galleries and estates of Europe. The paddock gardens of Santa Anita became home to rare works of statuary while the walls of the Turf Club were adorned with the sporting masterpieces of Munnings and Stubbs.

Today, the paintings are mostly copies - the pricey originals were auctioned by Meditrust - and the garden pieces must compete for attention with big-screens, banners, and refreshment stands. Still, it is difficult to completely camouflage the original beauty of the Santa Anita Park, which was the only racetrack that could play itself in the movie version of "Seabiscuit."

"We loved the movie," Strub said. "Especially since there was so much of Santa Anita on the screen. And I liked the portrayal of my grandfather, even though I never really knew him."

Veteran character actor Ed Lauter played Doc Strub in "Seabiscuit" with the appropriate gravity of a man making sports history by staging the first Santa Anita Handicap. One glitch, however. In the movie, each and every pronunciation of the good doctor's name rhymed with "tub" instead of "tube."

"That didn't bother me enough to ruin the experience of a wonderful movie," John Strub said. "But I had to wonder, with all the resources they had at their disposal, why they didn't just ask someone."

Strub, 45, describes his current relationship to Santa Anita as, simply, "a customer."

"I appreciate a person like Frank Stronach coming along to put a bundle of money into the racetrack, enough to keep it going into the next generation," Strub said, referring to the chairman of the Magna operation. "He bought the track for $125 million and has since put in another $60 million. With that kind of investment, they're not about to tear it down and build a housing development."