Santa Anita Race Park race track in Arcadia, Calif., which opened for its 76th season yesterday, has a storied tradition made famous by thoroughbred champions like Seabiscuit, Round Table, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and Zenyatta and jockeys like Willie Shoemaker, Johnny Longden and George Woolf, nicknamed “The Iceman,” for sitting chilly in the saddle until the last possible moment before asking his horse to surge victoriously toward the finish line.
It was Woolfe who guided Seabiscuit to victory in a magical match race against the heavily favored Triple Crown Champion War Admiral in 1938.
But the owner of Santa Anita’s greatest tale is its founder, Charles H. “Doc” Strub (1884-1958), a dentist and a dreamer. Even when I’m holding a fistful of losing tickets I praise the man’s name for bringing me out to the Great Race Place again and again, season after glorious season.
I mention Strub on page 323 of my book, Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject, as just one example of a person overcoming adversity or beating the odds, but, in truth, I failed in paying sufficient homage and respect to his enormous entrepreneurial spirit that no natural disaster or man-made obstacle could ever raze.
After graduating with a degree in dentistry from the University of California at Berkeley, Strub set up a dental practice in San Francisco, prepared to employ modern dental techniques with new analgesic drugs and laughing gas so that pulling teeth could be performed painlessly.
But the 1906 San Francisco earthquake leveled his office and all of his state-of-the-art equipment before he ever pulled his first tooth.
Strub didn’t let that first strike knock him out of the game, however. The former Berkeley baseball player answered a newspaper ad to play ball for his old coach, Charles Graham, while rebuilding his practice. Eventually, he ran a chain of six “painless extraction” dentist parlors.
As business boomed, Strub began speculating in the burgeoning California real estate market, including the reconstruction of San Francisco’s business district. So when Graham and another business partner approached Strub about joining them as an equal partner in the purchase of the San Francisco Seals, a cash-strapped minor league baseball team, Strub was all in.
As president of the Seals, Strub had a knack for selling minor league players, like Lefty Gomez, Tony Lazzeri, Frank Cosetti and Joe DiMaggio, to the majors at whopping profits, clearing more than $1 million for him and his investors. He had the Midas touch.
The good times, however, didn’t last. In 1929, while sitting in his favorite barber chair getting a shave, he took a phone call and was told he had lost everything in the great Wall Street crash and was more than $1 million in debt.
Despite the devastating financial news, Strub vowed that he would pay back all his debtors. Indeed, inside his jacket pocket, he kept a list of all his creditors on an index card. While Strub was cash-poor a second time, he was still idea-rich.
His next idea was to launch a race track in California. Despite a deepening Depression, Strub thought the timing for such a venture was perfect. In 1933, the state legislature had lifted the ban or pari-mutual betting, which had been in place since 1910.
To scrape up cash, he went to the burgeoning entertainment industry with hat in hand but nobody was buying except Hollywood filmmaker Hal Roach who was as big a dreamer as Strub. Roach was a producer of comedic shorts who also had experienced his financial ups and downs. After his leading man, Harold Lloyd, left him to start his own studio, Roach struck gold a second time, pairing comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Together, Roach and Strub, who had been told by Warner Bros. mogul Darryl Zanuck his race track infatuation was a terrible idea, got the last laugh.
The dentist and the filmmaker scouted more than 20 sites, including the current homes of Disneyland in Anaheim and the San Francisco 49ers on windy Candlestick Point before settling on a plot of land in Arcadia, Calif., along Route 66, owned by the heirs of Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin.
Construction began in March 1934, and the track opened on Christmas day that same year, drawing a crowd of more than 30,000 fans and a downpour of Depression dollars.
By 1960, the aggregate par value of the stock ($7,500,000) had multiplied over a dozen times and grown so large that it split 375-to-1.
Ever the dreamer, Strub, listed among the highest-paid executives in the United States by the Treasury Department, continued to put his dollars to work. In 1939, he was asked to help bail out the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. He accepted the task at no salary. He also helped make Lake Arrowhead and Pacific Ocean Park, two popular Southern California recreational destinations, possible.
At the end of the nine-race card, I didn’t cash a single ticket, but I was railside to watch Jimmy Creed win the $300,000 Malibu Stakes, the first leg of the “Strub Series” named in honor of the track’s founder.
The pain of my not winning was outweighed by the thought of a man who showed us that noble ideas, vision and an active entrepreneurial spirit are more important than what is left in your pockets.
That gave me plenty to smile about on the opening day of the track’s 76th racing season.