Just when we should be celebrating Opening Day at Del Mar, with Saratoga right around the corner, Life reared its head and spoiled the whole thing. The shocking news of the death of track announcer and friend Luke Kruytbosch at age 47 hit me like a ton of bricks. We weren’t best buddies but we saw each other a couple of times a year and stayed in occasional contact throughout the season. The annual “Stay Hungry” trip, comprised of press box buddies and assorted misfits, was not complete without a stop at Turf Paradise and beers with Luke at the Backside Bar after the races. I know it’s an overused cliche, but I don’t think Luke had an enemy in the world. How could you not like this guy? A large teddy bear of a man, with that booming, infectious laugh, he knew and genuinely liked everyone in the game. And I don’t mean just the heavy hitters, I mean the parking lot attendants, backside workers and clean-up crews. He probably knew the name of every so-called “little guy” at every track he worked. I wrote in a Mar. 22, 2007 blog post that Luke Kruytbosch was one of the nicest and most patient guys on the planet. The “patient” part was seen first-hand one night when an overzealous Luke fan who’d had one (or five) too many kept peppering him with questions, imitating his calls and making a general idiot out of himself. Luke hung in there gamely, patiently answering questions, even going so far as to invite the guy up to his booth to watch him call a race sometime. I finally couldn’t take it anymore so I shuffled off and called Luke on his cell phone, trying to give him a much-needed reprieve.

When you get news like this, it’s only natural to reflect back on time spent or conversations with that person. And my sadness only increased when I realized our group didn’t get a chance to spend time with Luke last March in Arizona. Instead of the usual drinking and post-race debauchery, we rushed out of the track to make it back to ASU for a good NIT basketball game. We had great seats and saw a terrific game (ASU vs. Florida). A few of our guys even cashed sizeable wagers on Florida. We whooped it up and talked about how much we had enjoyed the atmosphere and how great it had been to do something “different”, instead of the usual excessive intake of adult beverages and dice games at the ramshackle Backside Bar. Had any of us known we wouldn’t see Luke again, we would have bypassed the meaningless hoops game in a second.

Besides being a top-notch announcer who called 10 Kentucky Derbies, Luke was a friend and mentor to many young, up-and-coming race callers. I know for a fact that he was extremely instrumental in helping guys like Bill Downes and John Lies get their starts. I once ran into Luke at a Breeders’ Cup press party and joked that I didn’t know whether to shake his hand or kiss his ring. Like the Pope or a Mafia Godfather, he was the guy other track announcers went to for advice or career advancement. Tonight after the races, owner Mike Pegram (a close friend of Luke) hosts a big party at his Del Mar home. You can bet your bottom dollar we will toasting and telling Luke stories late into the night.

Right after getting the tragic news about Luke, I got a call from Bob Mieszerski, telling me that he had been laid off as part of the L A Times cost-cutting measures. The Times cut 150 jobs, and Mieszerski and racing writer Larry Stewart were two of the victims. Mieszerski is an extremely talented handicapper and writer who has been in the newspaper business since he was 21 years old. Blessed with an incredible memory and great feel for the game, I consider him one of my main handicapping mentors. While obviously nothing can compare to the tragedy of death, losing one’s job after a 30-year career has to rank second. Mieszerski deserved better—being notified two days before the start of Del Mar showed a complete lack of class by the Times, which will now have no horse racing coverage in the country’s second-largest market. With the Breeders’ Cup coming to Santa Anita this fall, could the timing have been any worse? Let’s hope Bob lands on his feet quickly, making the Times’ loss some other publication’s gain.

Excuse me if I’m not in my usual fired-up-for-Del Mar state of mind. There are some things a lot more important than horse racing.

The American Oaks at Hollywood Park has turned into one of the more important races on the Southern California calendar in just seven short years. The Grade I $750,000 event attracted another strong international field this year, highlighting an 11-race card that also included four other stakes and handicap races. Toss in a three-day Pick Six carryover of nearly $1.2 million—with another $3.7 million bet today—and it was a sensational day of racing and gambling. Here’s a recap:

The first stakes of the day was the Hollywood Juvenile Championship, featuring a modest field of eight 2-year-olds (after two scratches). AZUL LEON, a narrow winner from well off the pace in his only start, looked like he would get a favorable pace scenario and he did, rallying very wide from last to win easily in 1:10.4 as the even-money favorite. He didn’t beat anythying but the son of Lion Heart has a bright future for trainer Doug O’Neill. The Vanity looked like a soft spot for unbeaten and untested ZENYATTA but she had to work much harder than expected to keep her perfect record alive. Moving a little earlier than normal down the backstretch, the amazon Street Cry filly got first run on the leader, moved to a clear lead inside the 1/8-pole, then was straight as a string to hold off an unlucky TOUGH TIZ’S SIS, who was forced to steady and angle out in mid-stretch. She gave trainer John Shirreffs his third Vanity win (Manistique in ’99 and Hollywood Story in ’06) but the final time of 1:49.2 (final 1/8th run in :13.3) was subpar, and ZENYATTA won despite turning in the least impressive of her six wins.

The CashCall Mile was probably the most exciting race of the day with DIAMOND DIVA re-rallying to nip VENTURA after that one had put a neck in front 50 yards from the wire. Both fillies fired big in what amounted to a two-horse race, with favorite LADY OF VENICE finishing a non-threatening third. The American Oaks drew horses from all over the U.S. and Europe, but PURE CLAN showed her class by splitting horses in mid-stretch and defeating perect trip runner-up SATAN’S CIRCUS, with CLEARLY FOXY an unlucky third (traffic trouble probably cost her second money). ‘CLAN, who chased Eight Belles and Proud Spell in her three career losses, remained unbeaten in four turf starts while making 50-year training veteran Bob Holthus one-for-one in California. And finally, STREET BOSS ran to the wagering and won his fourth straight and first Grade I by taking down the Triple Bend. Like Zenyatta earlier, this was not BOSS’s best race, although he did rally from last and ovecome a very wide trip. He looked like he would draw off in the final furlong but never changed leads through the lane and ended up fully extended to defeat stubborn shipper ELITE SQUADRON. He seems better at 6 or 6 1/2 furlongs, where the quicker opening quarter mile better sets up his stretch kick. All in all, a terrific day, with more than $24 million wagered on the card, and a generous $12,827 Pick Six payoff to 257 perfect tickets.

NOTES: What a weekend John Sadler had last week, taking down four stakes races over two days. He won with a 2-year-old filly (EMMY DARLING in the Landaluce), an older male turf runner (WHATSTHESCRIPT in the American), a female sprinter (DEAREST TRICKSKI in the A Gleam) and a long-fused turf mare (BLACK MAMBA in the Beverly Hills). That’s versatility…heading into the final six days of racing Sadler holds a 26-21 lead over O’Neill in the trainer standings…too bad about HEATSEEKER, scratched out of the Gold Cup and subsequently retired due to a suspensory injury. With Curlin trying to go overseas and win the Arc, he might have been the one to beat in the BC Classic later this fall…Garrett Gomez will be returning West to ride the Del Mar meet, which is a change from previous years when he stayed East until the start of Santa Anita…between him and Rafael Bejarano, who else is going to win any races this summer?…after a slow start to the meet trainer Jorge Periban has been on a roll lately, winning with a very high percentage of his starters over the past month…veteran rider Julio Garcia definitely gets run out of horses. Although he doesn’t stay in one place too long, the quirky reinsman has talent…since when did the Detention Barn become the Protection Barn? Protection for whom—horse, trainer or bettor?…radio show “Thoroughbred Los Angeles”, hosted by Jay Privman on Saturdays and Mike Willman on Sundays, can now be heard in the San Diego market at XTRA Sports 1360 from 9-10 a.m. (Pacific)…HP track announcer Vic Stauffer has done a much improved job of calling the “underneath” horses (runners finishing second through fifth for exotics purposes) as the horses cross the wire. I have been very critical of Stauffer in the past, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

Finally, what are the odds of getting two foul balls at the same baseball game? Off the bats of back-to-back hitters no more than three minutes apart? Well that’s exactly what happened to Southern California simulcast host/TV personality Kurt Hoover at an Angels’ game last Tuesday night. Considering that there were about 40,000 people in the stands, the odds of the same person getting two balls in the same night would be about 1.6 billion to one! To be fair, sitting behind home plate on the loge level is a lot more advantageous than sitting in the right field bleachers, but come on. How do I know it happened? I was sitting one seat to his right. The last time I got a foul ball was chasing one down at a Little League game and returning it to the snack bar for a 25 cent piece of candy…in 1975.

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