Some History of California Horse Racing
When one sees the long, storied history of California horse racing, it is clear that many of the sport's greatest champions have held court here. For decades, legends like Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Jr., Charlie Whittingham, Seabiscuit, Swaps, Native Diver, Affirmed, John Henry, Snow Chief, and Zenyatta have held court and thrilled scores of fans.
Thoroughbred racing is not all about betting. It features greatness, excellence, and everyone can relate to the horses and jockeys competing in some way.
Below is a timeline highlighting some of the most memorable moments in California horse racing history!
1922: Morvich becomes the first California bred racehorse to win the Kentucky Derby.
1933: Legislation to allow pari-mutuel wagering is approved by state voters, and that sets the stage for Thoroughbred racing to return to California.
1934: Two racetracks are built in California. Up north in San Mateo, Bay Meadows debuts in November. Meanwhile, under the leadership of noted movie producer Hal Roach and racing fan and dentist Dr. Charles H. Strub, Santa Anita Park opens on Christmas Day. It immediately proves to be a popular sporting venue.
1935: The inaugural Santa Anita Handicap is run on February 23rd with a purse of $100,000, the largest of any race. The contest makes big news, and trainers come to California to run their horses in it. The first winner is Azucar, who is ridden by the legendary George "The Iceman" Woolf."
1937: With Bing Crosby at the helm, Del Mar opens on July 3rd. Like Santa Anita, it becomes a popular getaway among Hollywood figures and the general public.
1938: Just under a year after Del Mar's first season, Hollywood Park opens in Inglewood on June 10th. Run by the Hollywood Turf Club, which boasts Jack and Harry Warner, Bing Crosby, and many other entertainment figures among its members, the track becomes the latest venue to open as Thoroughbred racing continues to thrive in the Southland. The first Hollywood Gold Cup is run that year, and it is won by none other than the legendary Seabiscuit, who is the most popular horse in America at the time.
Later that summer, Seabiscuit takes part in a match race with Bing Crosby's Ligaroti at Del Mar. The event makes news, and Seabiscuit takes a narrow victory while giving Del Mar a boost in popularity in its second season of racing.
One more match race was in store for the Biscuit, for he took on 1937 Triple Crown champion War Admiral at Pimlico Race Course on November 1st. Ridden by George Woolf, the small underdog decisively beats War Admiral at the home of the Preakness Stakes in front of thousands in attendance and an untold number of people listening on the radio.
1940: Seabiscuit goes out a champion when he wins the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, a race that had eluded him for a couple of years.
1941: Golden Gate Fields opens in Albany, California, joining Tanforan and Bay Meadows on the Northern California racing circuit.
1949: A young jockey named Bill Shoemaker makes his riding debut in March on the Northern California circuit, then gets his first of more than 8,000 wins a month later at Golden Gate Fields.
1950: Gordon Glisson becomes the first jockey to be honored with the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. Named after "The Iceman," who passed away in a riding accident in 1946, the award is given to a jockey whose character both personally and professionally embody the best in racing.
1951: Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown champion, makes history as he retires following his win in the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup. Big Cy adds another place for himself in history as the first Thoroughbred to earn more than $1 million in a career.
Los Alamitos begins hosting race meets.
1955: Swaps becomes the second California bred racehorse to win the Kentucky Derby.
1956: Following a hugely successful year that includes winning multiple stakes at Hollywood Park while equaling or setting multiple time records, Swaps is voted Horse of the Year.
1958: The brilliant Round Table becomes the first horse to win the Malibu Stakes, San Fernando Stakes, and Santa Anita Maturity (later known as the Strub Stakes), which collectively become known as the Strub Series. Round Table also wins the Santa Anita Handicap to become Horse of the Year.
1959: Tomy Lee is the first champion of the Del Mar Futurity to win the Kentucky Derby. Bill Shoemaker is the winning rider.
1962: Decidedly is the third California-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
1963: The California bred Candy Spots captures the Preakness Stakes.
1965: Lucky Debonair wins the Santa Anita and Kentucky Derbies.
1966: John Longden, one of the finest riders the sport has ever known, retires a champion when he rides George Royal to a repeat victory in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita Park, his 6,032nd career victory. The thousands attending the races at Santa Anita salute the retiring Longden following the race.
1967: The legendary California bred Native Diver becomes the first horse to win the Hollywood Gold Cup 3 times, doing so in 1965, 1966, and 1967.
1969: Santa Anita hosts live racing in the autumn for the first time in its history. The Oak Tree Racing Association is formed, and the group is the club that runs the meet. The annual Oak Tree season continues at Santa Anita until 2009, when it moves to Hollywood Park and later Pleasanton.
1970: Bill Shoemaker becomes the all-time leading rider in the sport when he wins his 6,033rd career race aboard Dares J at Del Mar on Labor Day.
1971: Ack Ack is voted Horse of the Year, and is the first horse to do so without leaving California.
1972: Cougar II, a wildly popular and versatile horse in Southern California, is voted Top Male Turf Horse at the Eclipse Awards.
1974: Ancient Title, a popular and talented California bred, takes the Strub Series at Santa Anita while also becoming the California bred Horse of the Year. Ancient Title will win that award again the following year.
1975: Avatar wins both the Santa Anita Derby and the Belmont Stakes.
1977: Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew competes in the Swaps Stakes on July 3rd. In what was arugably Hollywood Park's most shocking moment, J.O. Tobin springs the upset to win the Swaps while Seattle Slew comes in 4th.
1978: Affirmed, the champion of the Santa Anita Derby, goes on to sweep the Triple Crown while engaging in close finishes in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes with Alydar.
1979: Following his Triple Crown triumph, Affirmed goes on to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup as a 4 year old en route to winning the Eclipse Awards for Top Older Male and Horse of the Year.
1980: Spectacular Bid delivers one of the greatest season in Thoroughbred racing history, going undefeated at 4 years of age while winning the Santa Anita Handicap and the Strub Series to take Older Male and Horse of the Year honors at the Eclipse Awards.
Hollywood Park enjoys its all-time attendance record, with more than 80,000 coming to the races on May 4, 1980. A tote bag giveaway was part of the program.
1981: The popular John Henry, who races in Southern California, makes history by going back East to win the first Arlington Million, which boasted the first $1 million purse in Thoroughbred racing history.
1982: Gato Del Sol takes the win in the Kentucky Derby.
1984: Santa Anita adds the title of Olympic venue to its rich history when it hosts the Equestrian events for the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Later that autumn, Hollywood Park gains the distinction of hosting the first Breeders' Cup, a one day event that features multiple races designed to bring horses from all over the country to compete for divisional titles. With more than 60,000 fans in attendance and millions watching on television, the Breeders' Cup is a success.
1985: Santa Anita conducts its 50th anniversary season, highlighted by the Santa Anita Handicap. On Big 'Cap Day, the track has its biggest crowd, with more than 85,000 fans on hand to see Bill Shoemaker win his unprecedented 11th Big 'Cap when he pilots Lord at War to the victory.
1986: Ferdinand is the surprise winner of the Kentucky Derby, giving legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham his first win in the race and Bill Shoemaker his fourth. Shoemaker is also lauded for delivering what many feel is among the best rides of his career with Ferdinand, who began from the rail and made up ground while a quick pace developed up front.
Two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, the California bred Snow Chief, who won the Florida and Santa Anita Derbies, takes the Preakness Stakes and later becomes the first California bred to win an Eclipse Award when he takes the Top 3 Year Old honor.
Santa Anita plays host to the Breeders' Cup in the autumn of 1986.
1987: The Breeders' Cup returns to Hollywood Park. Ferdinand wins the Breeders' Cup Classic in a thriller over Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion Alysheba.
1988: Winning Colors makes history by winning the Santa Anita Oaks and Santa Anita Derby before going on to become just the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby.
1989: The popular Sunday Silence, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, captures both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before winning the Breeders' Cup Classic to win Horse of the Year. Sunday Silence, who was trained by Charlie Whittingham, joins the list of multiple horses from Southern California to win a Triple Crown race throughout the decade.
1990: Bill Shoemaker, a cornerstone of Thoroughbred racing for more than forty years, retires in February. His final race, dubbed "The Legend's Last Ride," is at Santa Anita. Shoe, who rode Patchy Groundfog, finishes fourth, and retires with 8,833 career wins.
1991: Del Mar holds its first Pacific Classic, which is won by the popular California bred, Best Pal.
1993: The Breeders' Cup returns to Santa Anita Park.
1996: The Pacific Classic again becomes a topic of conversation, when Dare and Go defeats Cigar, who had a 16 race winning streak entering the Pacific Classic.
1997: Silver Charm becomes the next California based horse to win two Triple Crown events, taking the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.The Breeders' Cup returns to Hollywood Park for a third time.
1998: Real Quiet, who is trained by Bob Baffert, becomes an unlikely Triple Crown contender following his surprise win in the Kentucky Derby. He follows that up in the Preakness before narrowly missing victory in the Belmont Stakes.
1999: Laffit Pincay, Jr. passes Bill Shoemaker to become the all-time leading rider in Thoroughbred racing. Pincay accomplishes this career milestone in December at Hollywood Park.
2000: California bred Tiznow wins the Breeders' Cup Classic.
2001: Tiznow makes history when he repeats as winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic. No other horse has done that before or since.
2002: The legendary Chris McCarron goes out a winner in his final career start, piloting Came Home to the victory in the Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park in early summer. McCarron retires with more than 7,100 wins.
2003: Milwaukee Brew is the second horse to win two Santa Anita Handicaps, successfully defending his 2002 title in the premier event.
Laffit Pincay, Jr. retires from riding after collecting more than 9,500 victories, making him the winningest rider in racing history at that time.
2005: Giacomo, who was third in the Santa Anita Derby, shocks the racing world as he wins the Kentucky Derby at more than 50-1. Giacomo was bred and owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, trained by John Shirreffs, and ridden by Mike Smith.
2006: The popular California bred Lava Man, who goes on to great success after being claimed, becomes the first horse to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same season.
2007: Lava Man makes history again when he becomes only the second horse to win the Hollywood Gold Cup three times, putting his name on the list next to Native Diver.
2008: Santa Anita is once again host of the Breeders' Cup, and will play that role again the following year.
2009: Zenyatta, who has acquired a tremendous fan base thanks to her electrifying rallies and undefeated streak, takes on the boys in the Breeders' Cup Classic and makes a valiant charge to the front as thousands of fans erupt in elation at Santa Anita while she goes on to win the race. Zenyatta is the first female to win the Classic, and also is the only horse to win both the Classic and Breeders' Cup Distaff.
2010: The Bob Baffert trainee Lookin At Lucky wins the Preakness Stakes after winning and placing in stakes in Southern California.
2012: Santa Anita Derby champion I'll Have Another wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
2013: Game On Dude joins Best Pal and Lava Man as the third horse to win the Big 'Cap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic, and he is only the second horse to sweep the races in one year. Game On Dude will make history the following year by winning his third Big 'Cap, making him the all time wins leader in the famed race.
2014: California Chrome, who was bred in California, captivates his home state and the entire sport of Thoroughbred racing with his underdog story. He wins all of his Kentucky Derby prep races at the age of 3, and goes on to win the Derby and Preakness while taking Top 3 Year Old and Horse of the Year honors at the Eclipse Awards.
2015: American Pharoah, the reigning winner of the Del Mar Futurity, becomes the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years.
2016: Nyquist, a Southern California horse who captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Florida Derby, wins the Kentucky Derby.The Breeders' Cup returns to Santa Anita, and the Saturday program brings more than 70,000 on track to see local horses Arrogate and California Chrome compete in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Arrogate wins the main event.
2017: The Breeders' Cup is at Del Mar for the first time in the track's history, and both the venue and its management receive high marks for its initial stint as host of the event.
2018: Justify delivers one of Thoroughbred racing's most unlikely stories as he wins the Triple Crown while competing in only 6 races. Justify, who was trained by Bob Baffert, was based at Santa Anita.