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Let's Watch the Horsies!

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Einstein crossing the finish line at the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7. All photos by Jimmy Bramlett

This Saturday is the 72nd Santa Anita Derby. Gates open at 10 am, and the first race is at noon. The winner of the big race will be eligible to race in the Kentucky Derby, the first jewel of the Triple Crown races, in May. The best known winner of the Derby, Affirmed in 1978, was the last horse to win the Triple Crown.

At the Santa Anita Handicap last month I was standing next to a gentleman named Jim, a laid off driver in his sixties who lives in Ventura County. I had been to Santa Anita several times but wanted to find out what made racetrack fans tick. In his wrinkled but not visage I figured he could tell me the ins and outs of thoroughbred racing.

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“This is my first time at the track,” he told me.

I was astonished, but I should have known better. He wasn’t like many others who had betting slips in their hand cheering on their pick-three or trifecta picks. He stood there in quiet awe as the horses crossed the finished line right in front of us.

And those horses are very awe-inspiring which photos and television don’t do justice. Each step they take is a picture of grace and musculature. Just standing there as the horses trot from the paddock to the track was enough to have my hairs stand up.

But for Jim it was a more sentimentality than anything else. Growing up in Ohio his family raised horses for the carriage race circuit in the Midwest. After moving out west, life got in the way. Now in a state of semi-retirement he decided to come out to see the races. “I saw the ads on television,” he said, “and just decided to come.”

I was standing right at the finish line when the big race started. As the bugle blared the rush of people descended as close as possible with their betting slips in hand.

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It was surprising to see it wasn’t just the degenerate senior citizen gambler sans dentures betting their social security checks. There were the douchey Boston Red Sox-loving frat boys fisting their beer with their girls in tow. There were the cougars seeing if they could win enough to buy a new pair of shoes at Bloomies. There were also just the horse enthusiasts merely watching for the love of the race like my friend Jim.

Einstein, one the favorites after Tiago dropped out, won the close race and the $1 million purse. The crowd cheered as the trophy was awarded. Despite my lack of knowledge of the sport and unwillingness to gamble, it was fun to experience this and talk to the folks at the track.

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Santa Anita Park in the setting sun