A CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS : FROM DUSK 'TIL DAWN, SANTA ANITA REFUSES TO YAWN.
Tempered by 25 years with the Los Angeles Police Department had prepared Andy Ketterer for anything he might encounter in his second career as a Santa Anita Park security officer.
Or so he thought until his first night on the job.
Walking a labyrinthine beat through the Arcadia racetrack's grandstand, clubhouse and turf club sometime after midnight, Ketterer was in an ornate barroom when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something dart through the dim light. He whirled to face the intruder - a stray cat leaping off the bar.
Before he could laugh, Ketterer was startled by more movement, and turned to see a lean, muscular man pointing a flashlight at him. It took a second to realize he was looking at a mirrored wall.
``To be honest,'' he says five years later, ``it might have scared the (sleep) out of me.''
After the horseplayers, racing executives, jockeys and trainers leave each evening, the racetrack can be an eerily quiet and lonely place. Yet for many people it is unavoidable.
In any other sport, the athletes go home at night and the arena is locked tight. At the racetrack, there are 2,000 horses to be taken care of around the clock, 3-1/2 miles of running and training surfaces to be maintained, three-eighths of a mile of seating areas to be swept, and, in all, 320 acres to be patrolled.
In addition to the night-shift workers, there are the estimated 400 to 800 grooms and other barn employees who make their homes in Santa Anita's 55 stables, bedding down in tack rooms or upstairs dormitories.
It is, the residents say, like a little city.
A little city that never sleeps.
``I have a place to eat, a place to shower, a place to sleep,'' says Nada Pizarro, a bubbly woman with curly black hair. ``I have a hospital (the horsemen's clinic in the west parking lot).''
And she has two jobs.
With her boyfriend, Virgillio ``Coco'' Clemente, Pizarro walks horses for trainer Howard Zucker in the morning and does the jockeys'-room laundry, working as late as midnight.
On her one day off each week, Pizarro might visit two daughters who live with godparents.
``It's crazy out there,'' she says of the world beyond the racetrack gates. ``I get back here and I think, `Thank God I'm home. A little bit of peace and quiet.' ''
If the racetrack is a haven for some of society's fringe elements during the day, it is home to the fringe of the fringe at night.
But Santa Anita's night people seem to enjoy their odd existence, especially the solitude.
``It's nice because you don't have to deal with people,'' says Jim Root, a bearded, wild-haired former probation officer who shares night-watch duties at trainer Richard Mandella's barn with an overfed springer spaniel named Digger. ``It's a good life if you like going to the races and watching horses.''
``Less politics,'' says James Nelson, who drives a track-maintenance tractor through the dark. `You get away from it on the night shift.''
Adds Marcus Anderson as he mops the grandstand steps at 4:15 in the morning: ``I don't have to deal with traffic.''
Nighttime at the track begins about 5:30 p.m., by which time the horses from the afternoon's final race have been walked, their legs poulticed and bandaged, and returned to their stalls.
And a new day begins about 5 a.m. - still 90 minutes before dawn - when the rail at the top of the stretch is drawn back and dozens of horses are ridden onto the main oval for exercise.
By then, the track maintenance crew has been tilling, rolling and watering for two hours. And a few trainers - mostly old-timers like Noble Threewitt, 85, Charlie Whittingham, 83, and Willard Proctor, 80 - will have been at work for an hour.
``It's just something that gets in your blood,'' Threewitt says, looking up from a newspaper a few minutes before 5 o'clock.
All night, what you don't see in the half-light of scattered floodlights and the glow of Santa Anita's 1,300 television monitors, you hear and smell.
Nighttime at the track is the whine of a trash blower in the grandstand at 7:30 p.m., the chug of a tractor tilling the main racing oval at 11, the rattle of a security woman's keys at midnight, the clunk of infield garbage barrels being emptied at 1:30 a.m., horses munching in their stalls at 3:15, and waking sparrows chirping in the grandstand rafters at 3:30.
And the pitter-patter of any of the dozens - hundreds? - of cats who prowl the racetrack.
One night a decade ago, a parking-gate guard fielded a phone call from a sleepless Arcadia resident asking what that noise was coming from Santa Anita.
The guard explained that a jet engine was being used to blow-dry the racetrack before a major race.
``George!'' the guard heard the woman on the phone shout to her husband. ``A jet airplane has landed at Santa Anita!''
Nighttime at the track is the odor of maintenance-equipment fumes, mixed with the fragrance of hay, blended with the early-morning aroma of pastry made by kitchen workers whose work begins as early as 3 a.m.
Also in the air is anticipation. Of the next afternoon's races. Of what could go wrong and shatter the small-town calm.
Before he goes home at night, one well-known trainer leaves behind three watchdogs to ward off anybody who would try to harm his valuable horses.
``Don't go wandering into any spots where people haven't told you it's OK,'' the trainer warns a writer preparing to stay at Santa Anita from dusk Wednesday to dawn Thursday. ``Hope you make it through the night.''
Many top trainers employ watchmen whose chief duty is to stay awake and listen for the sound of a horse in distress - ill, injured or, a common problem, stuck in his stall after lying down too close to a wall.
``Sometimes you get two or three (sick horses) a week, and sometimes you won't get any for a month,'' Root says. And a few times a year, the problem is so severe that Root must wake up his boss or a veterinarian with a phone call.
``That is not a pleasant feeling,'' says Tim Yakteen, who, as assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, has been on the other end of calls from night watchman Larry Hoff.
But Yakteen adds: ``He (Hoff) is worth his weight in gold. I can go on and on about the times he's saved horses.''
One example: If not for Hoff's quick reaction, Qathif wouldn't have been able to win the 1992 Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park the day after an attack of colic.
A trim, thick-spectacled 70-year-old, Hoff says he has lived at racetracks all over the United States since the 1950s.
It's no life of luxury, he admits at 1 a.m., standing beneath the single bulb that lights a room equipped with a bed, refrigerator and television set. But the money saved on rent and utility bills allows him to indulge a fondness for Mustang automobiles and cross-country drives during his annual three-week vacation.
A photo on the wall belies Hoff's birdlike demeanor. It is his latest Mustang - with a vanity plate reading ``DAMN FST.''
Hoff has worked for Whittingham since traveling from Florida to California on a bicycle in 1984. He stopped working as a groom the following year because of a bad back, and became Whittingham's night watchman.
``This is the quiet time. About the only time it's not is when we have a loose horse,'' he says, adding that he figures he has caught more escapees from other trainers' barns than anybody else at the track.
But not only the horses have to be protected. Also the track's human residents - and track property, which includes expensive electronics and artwork.
That's a job for Ketterer and the rest of a handful of uniformed security officers who patrol the shadows on foot and in a dusty pickup truck.
``It reminds me of when I was in the (Pasadena) police department,'' says night supervisor Jerry Crowley, 63, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native who has worked at Santa Anita for 19 years. ``The part I liked best was walking the foot beat. You get to know who the troublemakers are (and) who the nice people are.''
At 7 p.m., Crowley steps out of his pickup and into the barn-area recreation hall that serves as the gathering spot in this city within a city.
The rec hall is open until 10 p.m. Movies are shown on a big TV - nothing dirty; tonight three dozen men, mostly young and Hispanic, sit on folding chairs watching ``Police Academy.''
In a back room, men play cards at three tables, one sloping so precariously that if gambling were going on, all the chips would slide in one player's direction.
``Hey!'' Crowley barks, pointing at two $20 bills on another table.
A player snatches the bills and stuffs them in his pocket.
``I just don't want to see the money on the table,'' Crowley explains, more worried about the possibility of theft than gambling.
Burglary is the most serious crime in the security officers' case books. There are fights, but few as bad as years ago, before the backstretch population began to shrink and became 80 percent Hispanic, the homogeneity diminishing racial anomosities.
``There used to be chain fights, pitchfork fights,'' Crowley says. ``My own opinion is the troublemakers have been weeded out.''
The records show arrests for drug offenses and for drunkenness.
``I think if they stopped buying Budweiser back here, Budweiser would declare a loss,'' Crowley says. ``(But) for as much drinking as there is, you don't see many drunks.''
Most of the time the guards - like the watchmen in the barns - are trying to head off serious trouble.
People without racetrack licenses and jobs are barred; homeless people who wander in through the parking lots or climb fences are rousted.
At about midnight Wednesday, a stable-gate guard reports turning away two men who claim to be friends of Santa Anita president Cliff Goodrich and Ronald Reagan.
On a quiet night like this one, the security guards work their way through three pots of coffee.
That is, when one of them isn't striding purposefully through the executive offics in the grandstand, switching off other people's coffee pots that have been left bubbling - a fire hazard.
Little things take on great significance in the emptiness of a racetrack at night.
Late Wednesday, a burglar alarm goes off in the parimutuel money room, and guards respond, fearing the worst. It turns out a late-leaving employee has inadvertently left a door ajar.
It could have been worse. It could have been a cat.
``People say to me, `Aren't you scared to walk around there at night?' '' says Rita Crowley, a security guard who works various shifts, sometimes at night. ``Naw. Just keep your eyes open.''
PHOTO (1--color) When the bettors go home, Santa Anita t akes on a whole different feeling for workers who are left behind.
(2--color) Stable worker Antonio Gonzalez makes up a new bed of straw at 5:30 a.m. - the end of a long night and the beginning of a new day at the track.
(3) 10:30 P.M. The jockey's roomis all quiet with the exception of janitor Edgar Barrera. A room normally filled with tensin and anticipation is, for now, a serene place.
(4) 12:00 A.M. Night watchman Jim Root gives siphon a pat during a walk through the barn.
(5) 1:08 A.M. Living in a room in trainer Charlie Whittingham's barn, night watchman Larry Hoff has lived at tracks since the '50s.
(6) 1:30 A.M. It's late, and on this night, it's wet. That means extra work for David Oliva, who empties water from trash cans around the grandstand.
(7) 2:12 A.M. The Baldwin Club bustles with big spenders during the day. Deep into the night, the posh hub of Santa Anita becomes eerily silent with only the glow of the tiny television sets that are never turned off to guide the night watchmen through the aisles.
Michael Owen Baker / Daily News
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Apr 21, 1996|
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