Bob Baffert has made Santa Anita his headquarters since he began his career as a thoroughbred trainer two decades ago. He doesn’t have to walk far from the horsemen’s parking lot to his barn. Actually, he has two barns, one facing the other, to accommodate a coterie of blue blood thoroughbreds. Signs adorn each barn, championing his Kentucky Derby winners: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002).
Baffert (pictured) hopes the edifices remain in the future, what with a state of uncertainty prevailing at the classic Arcadia compound.
Santa Anita – actually Magna Entertainment Corp., which operates the track – filed for bankruptcy last March. Magna, North America’s largest track owner, which also lists Gulfstream Park, Pimlico and Golden Gate Fields among its racing properties, is based in Aurora, Ontario, and has Eclipse Award-winning owner/breeder Frank Stronach as its CEO.
"Simply put, MEC has far too much debt and interest expense," Stronach said at the time of the bankruptcy announcement, adding that, "This is a voluntary filing intended to utilize a Chapter 11 process that will allow us to continue to operate the business uninterrupted while we implement a reorganization in a court-supervised environment. We expect that all employees, customers and horsemen will continue to be paid in the normal course along with all post-petition vendor obligations."
According to Miller Buckfire, an investment banking firm in New York City, potential buyers for Santa Anita must submit their applications to the company by July 31. But whether it will be sold or not, or whether Stronach somehow retains the track, remains to be seen.
Baffert is hopeful that whoever rescues the storied track does what’s right by the picturesque venue. There isn’t a morning that the scenic backdrop doesn’t inspire and invigorate, despite the vagaries of the business. As one trainer puts it when asked how things are going, "Just another day in Paradise."
Or, as I wrote in The Blood-Horse Magazine in 1996, "Santa Anita (is) nestled in its sweeping panoramic beauty at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains (and) … is indigenous to multi-cultured Southern California."
No one has to convince Baffert.
"All I can hope for is that the right people get it," he said. "I wouldn’t want them to mess up the barn area by developing it for other purposes. You hear different rumors that some guys want to knock half the barn area out, but if you do that, you lose the beauty and the ambiance of Santa Anita’s backstretch."
"Knocking half the barn area out" would be necessitated to comply with environmental impact assessment standards. It has been mentioned that $40 million would be needed to achieve that criterion.
"One of the track’s greatest attributes is coming out to Clockers’ Corner in the mornings to watch the horses," Baffert continued. "That’s the beauty of Del Mar, too. Owners come out to watch their horses train in the mornings. It’s the colorful history and atmosphere of Santa Anita and Del Mar that keep people in the game.
"That’s one of our greatest assets; that and the great weather we have in Southern California. If somebody wants to develop half of Santa Anita’s barn area, you can forget about racing. It’s not going to survive. You can’t take the beauty away from Santa Anita."
Nor can anyone deny the fact that Baffert’s recent election to the Hall of Fame was a foregone conclusion, even though he has yet to fully absorb the honor.
"You know what? It probably will hit me the day I’m inducted (Friday, Aug. 14 at Saratoga)," he said, adding with a bawdy smile that "Jill (his wife) said it won’t feel like she’s slept with a Hall of Fame trainer until I get the plaque."
Their 4½-year-old son, Bode, named for champion skier Bode Miller, however, already is dutifully impressed with his father’s accolade. When Baffert asked Bode, "Who’s the best trainer?" the kid didn’t need a prompt. His response was immediate and compliant: "Daddy."
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Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden