Old racing officials never die, they just fade away

Jun 14, 2005 1:20 AM

After 50 years that saw the face of racing in California change from live crowds of 80,000 to 3,000, from win, place and show to the Pick Six, from Citation to Ghostzapper and from Longden to Bailey, the Pete Pedersen era ends on July 17.

That’s when Hollywood Park’s 64-day meeting comes to a close. On that day, the 84-year-old Pedersen will pack up his binoculars and be gone as an official figure from the game that was once called the Sport of Kings, carrying his tall and angular frame off into the sunset. He will be gone but not forgotten. The California Horse Racing Board did not renew his contract to continue as a steward, a position he has held since 1955. He did not quibble about their decision.

Pedersen leaves as he arrived, with an unwavering love and curiosity of the game and an undiminished honesty and dignity he called upon to serve as his foundation for half a century.

He will miss the game more than it misses him, because no man is indispensable. There may be more sour notes without him, but the band plays on.

Petersen, who was honored with the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2002, leaves with a book full of memories, some of which he was generous enough to share before he departs.

GT: What is the best horse you have seen race?

PP: "That’s almost impossible. I always thought Citation was but the truth is, Citation was never the horse out here he was as a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old, before he came to California. I think I saw him beaten more times than I saw him win. Noor beat him so many times, but Citation always packed so much weight.

"I suppose the best horse I ever saw was Spectacular Bid. Even then he was beating the same few horses out here. But his all-time record and the ease with which he won, I’d have to rank him probably the best I saw."

GT: Who was the best trainer?

PP: "You could name a hundred. Buster Millerick was great, Willie Molter was great, Red McDaniel was great. Hirsch Jacobs from back East was probably as smart a man and as sharp as anyone. Allen Drumheller came from my country in Washington (state). He was great. Charlie (Whittingham) was great but I knew him when he was 18 and 19 and with Horatio Luro. Charlie really didn’t establish his records till he was way older. Then he got horses that could run a distance of ground. He probably was a great trainer as a young guy but not necessarily successful. But he learned a lot from Luro and he certainly was a great trainer."

GT: Who was the best jockey?

PP: "I saw Ralph Neves break his maiden. I was just a kid and so was he, in 1934. I thought Neves was the best as I was growing up, and he was a very, very good jockey. Then I got to see (Johnny) Longden a lot. He was the toughest guy and the overall best rider. He didn’t look like it (on a horse) but he was. Of course, (Bill) Shoemaker was just a freak, a great, great rider. So I’d say Shoemaker.

"Laffit Pincay rode all his horses the same, whether it was a claiming race or a stakes. He was a great rider, but Shoemaker just didn’t win some of the races. He won all the races. They said he could never compete with (Eddie) Arcaro and those guys but he competed with everybody. They said he was too light (at under 100 pounds). Jimmy Jones said, ”˜You can’t put all that lead on a horse. It will stop them.’ But it never stopped Shoe. Milo Valenzuela was a great rider. Chris McCarron was a great rider. But when you start naming riders you’re crazy because you’re bound to leave someone out."

GT: What was the best race?

PP: "The San Juan Capistrano between Noor and Citation (in 1950). They hooked up for a mile and three-quarters head and head. I saw the race up on the roof with Arcaro, who didn’t ride Citation. Steve Brooks rode him. Evan Shipman was at Santa Anita and he thought Citation won, but he wasn’t sure, and of course Noor won (by a nose, carrying 117 pounds and Longden to Citation’s 130). But it was that close a race."

GT: What will you miss most about racing?

PP: "Probably the people. I seriously enjoy the racing people. That doesn’t mean the people who are necessarily successful but the grooms and people who have made it through hard work. I get a great kick out of agents. I’ll miss the valets in the jocks’ room. I’ll miss the characters. It’s a very precarious game. It’s a gambling game so people do strange things. Naughty people still do naughty things. As a steward I’m not supposed to be thinking about those things but we’re all human. I’ve always enjoyed those things over the years. Policing is part of the business."

GT: What will you do when you retire?

PP: "I don’t know. There are two things I know you can’t win at: You can’t win owning horses and you can’t win playing the races, so those are the two things I might wind up doing, just to be around racing."

HOMESTRETCH:

Afleet Alex made 6-5 look like 1-9 in his overwhelming Belmont victory, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt he is this year’s best 3-year-old.

"All critics can be silent," jockey Jeremy Rose said. "He won from five-eighths to a mile and a half. I don’t want to hear any more criticism about this horse."

The 26-year-old Rose rode Afleet Alex with the confidence of Tiger Woods on a miniature golf course, saving ground from the start as he did in the Preakness, waiting patiently until the far turn and making his jet-propelled move into the stretch.

"He’s ridden three Triple Crown races like a Hall of Famer," trainer Tim Ritchey accurately assessed.

”¡ If you think racing is in bad shape, it could be worse. They could be selling Zambonis to the NHL.