"If you build it they will come” entered our vocabulary from the movie Field of Dreams and come they did to the new racetrack, built in its own dream-field in San Gabriel Valley. Arcadia, Monrovia and Pasadena are cities built around that racetrack, as was most of the valley.
In the early pioneer days of the Wild West, amid the gold rush of California and Nevada silver mining, where the rise and fall of mining stocks meant fortunes were quickly won and lost, a young California entrepreneur, gambler and lover of fine race horses first drove through what is now Pasadena, Arcadia and Monrovia. Seeing the lush meadows and sprawling ancient oaks, Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin (for whom Baldwin Avenue is named) had a vision of a great rancho where he would raise the finest thoroughbred racing stock in the world.
In 1875, after making a huge fortune in mining shares, “Lucky” Baldwin returned to southern California to fulfill his dream of a vast farming and ranching empire. He purchased Rancho Santa Anita from Harris Newmark for the then unheard of price of $200,000 cash, where he built his thoroughbred-breeding farm. He became southern California’s largest real estate developer. The entire ranching empire at one time extended from the San Gabriel Mountains on the north to the Puente Hills at Whittier on the south, from the Merced Hills on the east, to the Lamanda Park area on the west. It included all the land in the San Gabriel Valley and the cities and districts of what are now Sierra Madre, Arcadia, Monrovia, Rosemead, San Marino, Azusa, El Monte, Baldwin Park, Lamanda Park, Chapman Woods, Baldwin Hills, Angeles Mesa, Leimert Park and View Park. By 1879, Baldwin’s land holdings in the San Gabriel Valley totaled over 46,000 acres.
Baldwin invested an enormous amount of money in the development of Rancho Santa Anita. The land of his dreams became a place of gracious beauty with fountains, orchards, vineyards, grain fields, lakes, gardens, flowers, walks, buildings and, most importantly, the facilities for his horses. It became one of the most successful thoroughbred nurseries in the world, with his horses riding to victory across the nation. People came from all parts of America to look in awe at the beauty of the rancho and to stay over in the lavish Queen Anne cottage across the lake from the old Hugo Reid Adobe, which was his home. Visitors may still visit the cottage and the Adobe, in the heart of Baldwin’s Santa Anita, which is now the Arboretum.
In December 1907, “Lucky” Baldwin fulfilled his grand vision with the opening of his own racetrack, a few miles northwest of present-day Santa Anita Park. This grandiose structure attracted many of the best stables in the country for two years until his death on March 1, 1909.
In 1932, Dr. Charles Henry Strub, a prominent civic leader, patron of the arts, generous philanthropist and highly respected man of principle, was responsible for making the Arcadia racing facility the most beautiful, efficient and successful racing operation in the world at that time. Joining forces with the movie producer Hal Roach and several other visionaries to form the Los Angeles Turf Club, Strub eventually purchased 410 acres of Rancho Santa Anita, including 198 acres for parking alone. Ground was broken for massive construction in 1933.
Special soil was brought in for the racing strip and its mile and one-quarter and seven furlong racing chutes. The Private Turf Club, clubhouse and grandstand, designed by architect Gordon Kaufman, were said to be the most beautiful buildings of their kind. Painted in the now-famous Santa Anita blue-green with a delicate frieze of white running horses across the back of the stands in perfect flow, the building garnered Kaufman an international award of merit.
The designers turned to Europe for grand embellishments. The chandeliers in the “Chandelier Room” of the Private Turf Club and the golden palms were brought from the Palace at Versailles. The VIP Director’s Room was built from the paneling of a 17th century English manor with “La Chase de Compiegne,” a set of wallpaper murals painted by Carle Vernet (1753-1836) in the bar area. The grounds, with magnificent landscaping and constantly changing flowers, became not only a racing venue but a beautiful public park as well, hence the name Santa Anita Park. The 34-acre infield was developed with floral designs, huge lawns and a tunnel dug under the racetrack so that patrons could get to the infield. Eventually the turf course and a new training track would be added, and the Santa Anita Mall would be built on the site of the old training track.
On December 25,1934, the face of racing changed with the opening of the most successful and efficient racing plant in the history of horse racing. There were bigger purses and new innovations such as the pioneering of the photo finish camera, the electric timer, photo patrol cameras and the first magnetic starting gate. “There must be no mystery in the conduct of a race,” Strub said, “and integrity must be maintained at all costs.” From the beginning the Los Angeles Turf Club maintained its own security to ensure this edict. Today racing at Santa Anita Park is thoroughly policed at all times.
During World War II, racing was shut down by government command. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan and the subsequent internment of the Japanese Americans, Santa Anita became a Japanese internment center in 1942. It was a sad period in Santa Anita history. The Japanese Americans were rounded up with only the belongings they could carry and forced to live in the horse stables before they were moved to other locations in 1943. Although the smell of the horses and the lack of privacy and facilities were terrible, the imprisoned people, many of them farmers, managed to serendipitously transform even the stables into a park by planting flowers and vegetables in the enriched soil. During the remainder of the war years Santa Anita became a massive Army Ordinance Center known as Camp Santa Anita. It was not until May 5, 1945, the day of German surrender, that the horses returned to the starting gates at Santa Anita.
The post-war era began a triumphant renaissance for the Arcadia Race track. By 1950, racing at Santa Anita was in full swing. The third addition to the grandstand was built and a world-famous collection of paintings by the great equine sporting artists of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was begun, including paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) and Henry Thomas Alken (1784-1851). Each year Dr. Strub would visit England and Europe and bring back more great works of art to add to the collection. In 1956 Dr. Strub was presented to Queen Elizabeth, an avid horsewoman herself, and discussed ways of improving English racing. On that trip he brought back many ancient art objects such as Watteau figures, Gothic cases, stone urns, well-heads, statues and a 300-year-old sundial were placed in the paddock gardens.
Santa Anita truly became a palace for “the Sport of Kings.” Through the years the plant has been visited by royalty from around the world, it is a meeting place for Hollywood royalty, industrial royalty, political royalty, racing royalty and of course, the equine royalty, such as the legendary Seabiscuit, John Henry, Spectaculer Bid, Seattle Slew, Bayakoa, Bold Ruler, Alysheba and now Zenyatta.
At Santa Anita, philanthropy has always been a major concern from the beginning. Vast amounts of money have been allocated and special days have been set up by the Santa Anita Foundation and the Oak Tree Foundation for the benefit of the entire community. Donations in the millions of dollars have supported a research center at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and other hospitals in the local area. Each year hundreds of thousands of dollars are distributed to over 600 health and welfare organizations in six southern California counties, and hundreds of thousands are given annually to benefit schools and organizations in the City of Arcadia.
The affluence of Arcadia and the entire San Gabriel Valley owes itself in part to the revenue garnered from the racing at Santa Anita Park. During the racing season the plant employs over 2,000 people and directly affects more than 66,000 families in the area. There have been many changes since the beginning of the new millennium. Santa Anita is graced with new ownership with new visions. For the 21st century, Santa Anita has had renovations and innovations, such as spacious new restaurants, a new track surface and exciting plans for the future. Santa Anita Park assures us that they will continue their dedication to integrity and safety and to uphold the beauty of Santa Anita Park.
From the acorn that was one man’s dream of a world-class racing venue has grown a glorious giant oak tree with deep roots and far reaching branches that is now the entire San Gabriel Valley. i
Submitted by Scott Hettrick