Santa Anita Park officially opened on Tuesday, Dec. 25, 1934, but the inspiration for Dr. Charles H. Strub's racing showplace took form very nearby on another national holiday 27 years earlier.
Elias Jackson (Lucky) Baldwin, who had acquired Rancho Santa Anita encompassing much of the San Gabriel Valley in 1875, opened the original Santa Anita Park on Thanksgiving Day, 1907. It was Lucky Baldwin's final monument to himself: his own racetrack.
With a one-mile oval and an elaborate grandstand with triple spires the original Santa Anita Park housed as many as 1,200 horses, but passed into history when Baldwin, the memorable California pioneer, passed away on March 1, 1909. Racing also died in California. It wasn't reborn until after the passage in 1933 of a bill to legalize pari-mutuel wagering in the state.
Baldwin's Santa Anita racecourse had stood on what now is Arcadia County Park. The new Santa Anita Park rose nearby after the Los Angeles Turf Club, Inc., was organized and purchased part of Baldwin's estate. The force behind the new Santa Anita's founding was Charles H. (Doc) Strub, who guided the track's destiny until his death in 1958.
Designed in art deco style by architect Gordon B. Kaufmann, the original structure remains mostly unchanged.
Santa Anita's opening on Christmas Day, 1934, commenced a 65-day season. A crowd of 30,777 filled the new grandstand on opening day. The next day's Los Angeles Times reported that scores of celebrities including Al Jolson, Clark Gable and Will Rogers "rubbed elbows at the new track." But as the early days became decades, it was the horses and their companions who became the celebrities that made Santa Anita endure.
The horses were a "Who's Who" of turfdom - Equipoise, Twenty Grand, Rosemont, Head Play, Top Row Azucar - the list goes on and on. And that first year was only a sample of what was to follow. Virtually every "name" horse in America appeared under silks at Santa Anita.
Los Angeles Turf Club pioneered the way in rich purses. It offered the first $100,000 handicap in the nation, the first $100,000 derby, the first $100,000 race exclusively of four-year-olds, the first $100,000 grass course classic, and, at one time, the richest race in the world for fillies and mares. It wasn't just the money, however; it was the way things were done… the right way.
C.S. Howard's Seabiscuit would emerge as Santa Anita's early icon with his rise from humble beginnings to become the fans' favorite. Third choice in the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap, "The Biscuit" lost by a nose to favored Rosemont before winning the closing-day San Juan Capistrano by seven lengths. He won seven major races in the East before returning to Santa Anita in 1938. He already was proclaimed the nation's handicap champion, but conceding 30 pounds to Stagehand, he again lost the Santa Anita Handicap by a nose. Sidelined by a ruptured suspensory ligament in 1939, Seabiscuit returned triumphantly in 1940's Santa Anita Handicap. He won the hearts of racing fans with his courageous defeat of stablemate Kayak II, the defending champion. It was to be "The Biscuit's" last race.
The U.S. Government suspended racing at Santa Anita from 1942 through 1944. It first became a relocation facility for Japanese Americans, then an Army Ordnance base during World War II.
Racing resumed at Santa Anita Park on May 5, 1945. Busher developed into one of racing's great mares that year, and Johnny "The Pumper" Longden continued his rise to winningest rider in history. On a tragic note, George "The Iceman" Woolf lost his life in a riding accident when thrown by a horse named Please Me in 1946. The George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award was established in 1950, and is presented yearly to jockeys of outstanding character as decided by their peers.
Santa Anita showcased racing's first millionaire, Citation, as well as Noor, who upset "Big Cy" in the 1950 Big 'Cap and again in the San Juan Capistrano. A young rider named Willie Shoemaker won his first of 17 successive Santa Anita riding championships in 1951.
Round Table and Shoe took the '58 Big 'Cap. And, from out of nowhere in 1958, Silky Sullivan captured the Santa Anita Derby and the fancy of fans with his remarkable running style. Silky Sullivan was breathtaking while coming from 30 lengths off the pace with Shoemaker at the controls. Shoe, however, believes that his finest ride might have been aboard Olden Times in the '62 San Juan Capistrano. Shoemaker nursed the converted sprinter to a wire-to-wire victory in the grass race that covers about 1 ¾ miles. Trainer Charlie Whittingham won his first Santa Anita Handicap in 1957 with Corn Husker. His Big 'Cap wins would span five decades.
Longden was 59 when he announced that his ride aboard George Royal in the San Juan Capistrano on March 12, 1966, would be his last. George Royal was the defending champion, and his odds were nearly 8-1. Longden amassed his 6,032nd career victory, a record until surpassed by Shoemaker.
Oak Tree Racing Association ran its inaugural season in the fall of 1969 at Santa Anita Park. The not-for-profit organization contributes its proceeds to projects benefiting the racing industry.
Ack Ack earned the first Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year in 1971 after winning the Santa Anita Handicap. Another Whittingham-trainee, Cougar II, took the '71 San Juan Capistrano, becoming a grass star after just failing to catch Ack Ack in the Big 'Cap.
Affirmed set off on his sweep of the Triple Crown races after winning the 1978 Santa Anita Derby. He returned one year later to capture the Strub Stakes and set a track record of 1:58 1/5 in winning the 42nd Santa Anita Handicap.
Spectacular Bid launched his unbeaten Horse of the Year season in 1980 with victories in the Malibu, An Fernando, Strub and Santa Anita Handicap. Around this time, one of the sport's most durable stars ascended. Between 1978 and 1984, John Henry, who once sold for $1,100, competed in 20 stakes during the Santa Anita and Oak Tree meetings. He won 12 of them while earning $1,696,550 in Arcadia. Between November of 1979 and March of 1982, "America's Horse" won 11 successive stakes at the track including two Santa Anita Handicaps, two of his three Oak Tree Invitationals and the San Juan Capistrano. John Henry was named Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984.
Santa Anita was an all-time on -track attendance record set on Big 'Cap day, 1985, with 85,527 fans in attendance.
Before retiring as the richest Thoroughbred in history, 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba made his mark at Santa Anita. In 1988, Alysheba won the Strub Stakes, the San Bernardino and outdueled Ferdinand in the 51st Big 'Cap.
The "Legend's Last Ride" climaxed the extraordinary riding career of Bill Shoemaker on Feb 3, 1990. After exceeding Longden's career-victory record in 1970 and winning 8,833 races, he held the record until popular Panamanian jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr. broke it in 1999, retiring in 2003 with 9,530 victories.
Sunshine Millions debuted in 2003 with $3.6 million in purses for California- and Florida-breds, making it the richest day of state-bred racing in Thoroughbred history.
Santa Anita Park, "The Great Race Place", arguably the most beautiful race track in the world, continues to be a driving force in the racing industry.