Steve Wood is a full-time babysitter.
But he doesn’t watch kids. He and his crew monitor race tracks. And they don’t get paid by the hour. If they did, they would have enough money to retire.
Wood is Santa Anita’s track superintendent. It is his responsibility to keep the racing surface safe. That is a major chore during the winter/spring meet, which got underway Dec. 26 and runs for 85 days through April 21. Whoever said it never rains in Southern California never came to Santa Anita in January.
But Wood handles it, as he does the inevitable kvetching from horsemen, whose first excuse for losing a race invariably is the condition of the track.
Criticism goes with the territory, but no one is more qualified or caring than the 50-year-old Wood, a daily presence every morning at Clockers’ Corner, where horsemen gather for coffee, conditioning and complaints.
If blame comes Wood’s way, he accepts it with objectivity. In 30 years on the job, Wood has developed skin thick enough to deflect it and enough sagacity to keep it in perspective. He started at Pomona (Fairplex Park) when he was 19.
“There’s some glory in this work, but there are a lot of bad things, too,” Wood says. “You have guys on your back every minute of the day. And because I’m so involved, my visibility is extremely high. I stand at Clockers’ Corner where everybody can see me. I don’t hide. There’s no place for me to go. I’m with the trainers a lot, too, because I’m also track superintendent at Del Mar and Fairplex.
“Of the 16 tracks in the state of California, I think I take care of 12 of them. I’ve done work in Saudi Arabia, Africa, Hong Kong, Brazil, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines. There are not many people who do what I do. It doesn’t mean I’m a rocket scientist, but there are not many people who can care for and maintain race track surfaces.”
And care Steve Wood does.
No one infuses as much devotion and passion for his work as Wood.
“The track is pretty much winterized and I think the meet ought to go real well,” Wood said. “Hopefully, we won’t have a real wet winter. The track seems to be taking the rain real good right now. The last rain we got measured about an inch and it took about three days to dry out, but that was because the weather was cold.
“During this meet, the weather has a whole lot to do with everything we do. January usually is the rainy month, but last year it was February and a few years back, March was a killer month. But I kind of think January will be normal this meet.
“If you know it’s going to rain, about the only thing you can do is roll (seal) the track. Rolling it eliminates much water going into the track and it rebounds real quickly. If it’s rolled, it could rain for four or five days and the track will come back too fast in one day. If we don’t get it sealed and it rains that many days, it will be two weeks before it comes back. But in the 13 years that I’ve been at Santa Anita, we’ve only missed sealing the track before a rain once. We really try to protect it as much as we can.
“We have 13 people in our crew and we work around the clock. At 4 o’clock in the morning, we get up and harrow the barn area so horses have a soft path to the track. We never allow the track to be unattended. If a sprinkler breaks, or it rains in the middle of the night, somebody’s here. If some person gets crazy and wants to drive out on the track, somebody’s here. Someone is baby-sitting the track every day, every minute, all the time.
“In this job,” Wood says, “you have to have a very thick skin and you have to like the people a lot. And you have to love the horses, or you couldn’t do it.”
THE HOMESTRETCH: Promising Earl of Danby will make his next start in graded company, probably the Grade II Santa Catalina Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on Jan. 19, after winning impressively at Santa Anita last Friday. “He won geared down,” co-owner John Toffan said of the undefeated California-bred son of Smokester. “We don’t know how good he is.” Asked about wearing rundown bandages on his front legs for the first time, Toffan explained: “He ran down (when he broke his maiden at Hollywood Park) and Paco (trainer Paco Gonzalez) put them on as a precaution. You won’t see them again.” Awaiting Earl of Danby in the Santa Catalina could be Hollywood Futurity winner Siphonic. “The timing of the race isn’t great,” trainer David Hofmans said, “but there aren’t any races at Santa Anita in February for 3-year-olds, unless you want to cut back in distance. The Fountain of Youth (at Gulfstream on Feb. 16) is an option, but who wants to go all that way?” . . . Venerable sprint star Kona Gold is enjoying some welcome R and R at Bruce Headley’s home, where the trainer maintains a modest facility for horses not stabled at the track. “He hasn’t been out of his stall in three years,” Headley said of the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion. “I hope this will help.” Headley plans to have the Kentucky-bred son of Java Gold, who turns eight on Jan. 1, back at the races later next year . . . Mike Marlow, an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas for 12Â½ years, is at Santa Anita where the 37-year-old Indiana native plans to start a public stable. Marlow, who supervised training for Lukas in New York, parted amicably when Lukas opted to cut expenses after major client Padua Stables decided to go in another direction and moved its high-priced stock elsewhere. Padua is the nom de course of Satish Sanan, founder and CEO of Information Management Resources, Inc, which supplies computer outsourcing and software services to firms around the globe.