Lament of a California stakes gravedigger

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

November 20th, 2015

The band has been told to buff, polish, and tune their instruments. An expected call from the California Stakes Cemetery finally arrived this week with medical updates from the California Stakes Infirmary and news of potential internments for next year. Dirge practices are to begin shortly.

In an era of demographic decline and economization, the California Stakes Cemetery has begun to fill rapidly of late. Like many resting places it has its tranquil spots under shady trees, but the most popular plots, reserved for Grade 1s and former Grade 1s, overlook the Pacific. The views are majestic, thus making this particular graveyard the envy of stakes cemeteries throughout the country.

It is, of course, a private burial ground. There was controversy some years ago when overfilling hit stakes cemeteries in the Midwest and East Coast states, but pleas to open up California's to outsiders were rebuffed. None of the many under-the-table bribes for unmarked plots were ever accepted, for cemetery officials privately knew, despite public denials, that demand for their own space would soon skyrocket.

The northern section of the cemetery has always been the most congested. The oldest markers now date back to the days of Tanforan and Bay Meadows, with a sprinkling of stakes from Golden Gate Fields intermixed. Needless to say the stone wall surrounding this part of the cemetery is several hundred yards away from the ocean cliff.

Cemetery officials always had a plan in place for the inevitable growth of the southern section, but all privately admit they were caught off guard at how quickly it has filled. The word from the Infirmary this week is that the John Henry Turf Championship would be released next year, but that its bed and an extra would, at least temporarily, be occupied by the Los Alamitos Futurity and Starlet. Groundskeepers, not wanting to be caught off guard months from now, have gone ahead and designated two plots near the ocean just in case.

The improving health of the John Henry Turf Championship was welcomed by cemetery officials, who dreaded the potential awkwardness of having two markers with the name "John Henry" inscribed on them in close proximity to each other near the water's edge. The current one, the final resting place of the Hollywood Park feature, lies next to his old friend, the Sunset. Nearby are the San Fernando and Strub, whose relationship was so close it was described by all that knew them as "brotherly."

The Infirmary also passed along the news that the Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Last Tycoon (baptized the Inglewood) would also be admitted into their care, with their long-term prognosis unknown. In the case of the Santa Barbara, the cemetery grounds crew will have to find yet another plot directly above the beach.

"I don't get why old-timers like them are getting sent out to pasture while the younger ones get all the preferential treatment," said Joe, a racing fan since the 1960s and the cemetery's senior volunteer gravedigger. "The Santa Barbara used to be the big one for the older turf fillies and mares every winter at Santa Anita, but now we're told that honor belongs to the Santa Ana, which used to be its prep. Not in my eyes, no sir!

"Look at the San Fernando and Strub over there. Nothing left of them, but that brother of theirs [the Malibu] is still running around like he's some big shot. He's a good one, don't get me wrong, but I think his brothers were way better. The longer ones usually are.

"And why are they sending the Los Angeles and Inglewood (sic) off to die? Native Diver helped make those races! I know that committee in Kentucky helps determine which ones get to live and which ones get to come here, but it still don't seem right. I just don't understand."

Despite his lack of understanding, Joe has thought about where he'd like to place the Last Tycoon for its eternal rest if the need arises.

"I'm thinking of putting him right next to the San Luis Obispo over there," said Joe, pointing in the direction of the cemetery's oldest cypress tree. "They never knew each other -- didn't live in the same place at the same time -- but they had some things in common. I think they would have gotten along mighty fine."