Visiting Santa Anita's Gardens of Delight

Events / Travel
One of Santa Anita's "Watteau Figures," a lady holding a bird's nest, circa 1760. (Cynthia Holt)

Agatha Christie once penned, “You agree – I’m sure you agree, that beauty is the only thing worth living for.” One person who might have echoed her sentiments was Dr. Charles H. Strub, the mastermind behind the founding of Santa Anita Park. Following hard on the heels of a 25-year racing ban in California, Strub was uncompromising in his view that the new racetrack should exemplify the highest standards of customer comfort and convenience, from cutting-edge technology in pari-mutuel wagering to a collection of museum-quality artwork which would grace the walls and grounds of a place where history would hang its hat.

At Santa Anita, there is beauty at every turn, from its jewel-like setting at the foot of the spectacular San Gabriel Mountains, to artifacts so happily married to the landscape that they are often hidden in plain sight. The six-acre area known as the Paddock Gardens is a perfect example. With meticulously manicured box hedges and Brazilian pepper trees encircling the walking ring, the gardens are arranged with a formality reminiscent of a French park. Geometrical criss-crossing of walkways are interspersed with beds of vibrant seasonal blooms, sculpted topiary, weathered statues, and ancient stonework. The history is here for the telling. Why not allow extra time on your next visit to become acquainted with these gems of Santa Anita’s proud past? Here are some of the things for which to look:

In the southwest corner of the gardens is a marble World War II Memorial with a descriptive plaque, commemorating the role that Santa Anita played in the conflict. From March to October of 1942, 20,000 Japanese-American citizens were housed in the stable area before being moved to internment camps. Following their evacuation, Santa Anita was utilized as an army base, and became known as “Camp Santa Anita.” It was the largest army ordnance training center on the West Coast, and more than 100,000 soldiers passed through its gates.

Directly south of the grand Art Deco main entrance is the Kingsbury Memorial Fountain, added in 1938 and designed by Santa Anita architect, Gordon B. Kaufmann. It was named in honor of Kenneth R. Kingsbury, Standard Oil of California President and a member of the original Board of Directors, who died in 1937. Carved around the base is the inscription: “In U.S. Government Service, 1942-43-44,” marking Santa Anita’s war years, when racing was halted. Etched around the side of the fountain are the names of the first 15 winners of the Santa Anita Handicap and the first 15 winners of the Santa Anita Derby, along with their victory years.   

Impossible to miss, a life-sized statue of the magnificent Zenyatta, perpetually frozen in her signature prance, rests on the fountain’s south lawn. Sculpted by Nina Kaiser and dedicated in 2012, the statue has become a touchstone and a place of reverence for Zenyatta fans, with flowers and articles of remembrance often left to mark significant events in the “Queen’s" retirement years. Six of Zenyatta’s 19 career victories were at Santa Anita, including her thrilling win in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic and her “UN-BE-LIEVE-ABLE” triumph against the boys in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic. She was voted Horse of the Year in 2010, and was recently inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.

To the west of the fountain is a bust of iconic race-caller Joe Hernandez, sculpted by Joseph Portanova in 1972. Dubbed “The Voice of Santa Anita,” Hernandez called 15,587 consecutive races between Opening Day 1934 to January 27, 1972, when he collapsed during a race call. He died several days later.

John Henry statue at Santa Anita Park. (Cynthia Holt)

The north lawn of the fountain is the property of the irascible John Henry, a scrappy street fighter of a little horse, who once sold for $1,100 and rose to the height of the handicap ranks. The statue was sculpted by Nina Kaiser and was unveiled in 2009. It stands 15.2 hands and weighs approximately 1,000 pounds, John Henry’s actual physical measurements. Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984, John Henry officially retired at age 11 with what was then the all-time earnings record of $6,591,860. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Facing the south admission gates, a full-scale statue of George Woolf, designed by Tex Wheeler, commemorates racing’s legendary “Iceman,” nicknamed for his penchant of "sitting chilly” on his horse until the last possible moment, then staging one of his dramatic stretch drives. George Woolf lost his life as a result of a fall from a horse during a race at Santa Anita in January of 1946. The statue was erected by the California turf writers and by public subscription in 1949.

The walking ring, or paddock, is the heart of the gardens, and at the heart of the heart is a statue of the immortal Seabiscuit, designed by Tex Wheeler and dedicated in 1940. Like John Henry, Seabiscuit was small in stature, but endowed with a mighty heart. Seabiscuit secured his place in Santa Anita lore with his soul-stirring win at age 7 in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, the crowning race of his career. Twice he had attempted to win the “Big ‘Cap,” and twice he had been defeated by the slimmest of margins. The crowd of 78,000 who witnessed his triumph that day could have called down the sky with the fervor of their cheering.

Statue of George "The Iceman" Woolf. (Cynthia Holt)

To the left of the horse path that leads from the paddock to the racetrack, the busts of four of the most prominent jockeys to ever compete in this country are displayed. All of them rode throughout their careers at Santa Anita, and all are members of racing’s Hall of Fame. John “The Pumper” Longden’s final race on March 12, 1966, aboard George Royal in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap is still mentioned when racing aficionados gather to discuss the most thrilling finishes of all time. Bill “The Shoe” Shoemaker retired with the most wins ever notched in one year: 483 in 1953. Laffit “The Little Pirate” Pincay, Jr., retired as the all-time winning rider at Santa Anita. Chris McCarron was the all-time leading jockey in career earnings of $264 million when he hung up his tack in 2002. Longden, Shoemaker and Pincay were the all-time winning riders at the time of their retirements. Longden's (1966) and Shoemaker’s (1971) busts were sculpted by Joseph Portanova. Pincay's (1992) and McCarron’s (2006) busts are the work of Nina Kaiser. 

Located a few paces behind the four “heads," are two of Santa Anita’s most beloved bronzes. A bust of the incomparable trainer Charlie Whittingham with a separate bronze of his faithful Australian shepherd, “Toby," gazing up at him in rapt attention, are a special favorite with children. Among the many world-famous horses which "The Bald Eagle" trained were Hall of Famers Sunday Silence, Ferdinand, Cougar II, Ack Ack, Dahlia, Exceller, and Flawlessly. He notched 1,071 total victories and 272 stakes wins at Santa Anita, making him the track's most winning trainer. Whittingham won the Eclipse Award in 1971, 1982, and 1989, and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1974. His bust was created by Celou Bonner in 1990. Because of his widespread popularity as Charlie’s official stable greeter, Santa Anita commissioned a bronze of Toby following his death, so that his likeness could be with his master's for all time.

Bust of Charlie Whittingham and statue of "Toby." (Cynthia Holt)

The final memorial is often overlooked, owing to its location. To the far east of the gardens, immediately south of the east admission gates, is a large stone Maltese cross, with an accompanying plaque honoring Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin’s racehorses. Lucky Baldwin was the founder of the original Santa Anita Park, which was located to the east on the present site of the Arcadia public park and golf course. Sadly, the track operated for only two seasons before the Walker-Otis Anti-Racetrack gambling bill slammed the door on California racing for 25 years. The track burned to the ground in 1912. In 1950, the memorial was moved from Baldwin’s rancho to Santa Anita, along with the remains of four of his champions who had won the prestigious American Derby in Chicago: Volante (1885); Silver Cloud (1886); Emperor of Norfolk (1888); and Rey El Santa Anita (1894).

Humans, horses, and other animals aside, there are other embellishments to the Paddock Gardens worth seeking out. How they happened to arrive at Santa Anita is a fascinating story. In the early 1950s, England was dealing with postwar austerity, and cash-strapped members of the aristocracy were all too ready to part with excess artifacts to help shore up the family funds. Enter Dr. Strub, who made several annual forays to Europe beginning in 1950, which resulted in numerous purchases of architectural effects from the grounds of several English estates.  These were put in place for the 1956-57 season. 

Lucky Baldwin racehorses memorial cross and plaque. (Cynthia Holt)

On the west side of the gardens are four leaden statues, tempered by sun, rain, and birds, which are known as “The Watteau Figures,” owing to their similarity to those sculpted by French artist Antoine Watteau. These beautifully rendered figures of French country folk consist of a rotund gent with a jug and a mandolin, a fetching lass lifting the side of her garment in a dance, a beguiling young girl bearing an apron full of fruit, and a jaunty shepherd boy. A fifth figure, an elegant lady in a stylish hat and frock holding a bird’s nest, can be found on the southeast side of the gardens. These treasures reportedly were acquired from the collection of Sir Francis Cook of Doughty House, London, England, and are dated 1760.

Santa Anita’s gardening staff is fortunate to include landscape artists who can create a horse and rider or a leafy mare and foal out of a nondescript bush through the magic of shears and clippers. These verdant works of art can be seen in front of the east side of the saddling barn, and are accentuated by substantial pieces of garden decor, the shipping of which must have been an enormous undertaking. Two of these are the huge Lonsdale Urns, which can be found on either side of the path leading from the saddling barn to the paddock. Purchased from the collection of Lord Lonsdale of Lowther Castle, Cumbria, England, the matched urns are embossed with scenes from Greek mythology and are dated around 1750.

In close proximity to the Lonsdale Urns are two additional matching pieces of immense stonework, with a companion piece located in the southwest corner of the gardens. These massive planters were obtained from Lady Paget of Warren House, Surrey, England, and are dated 1760. Exhibiting classical carvings of horses, hunts, and battle scenes, these immense pots are supported by dog’s head gargoyles with fierce countenances.

Come for the history, stay for the racing, and perhaps make some history of your own!  Take a virtual tour of the gardens in the slideshow below.  

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