Love And Loss At Santa Anita’s Turf Club

Out of courtesy (and readership) I generally try to keep my writing OC-focused but once in awhile an out-of-county topic jumps onto my radar. One of my very first pieces here at The Weekly was about Laguna Beach’s Frank Panza, the beyond-legendary bartender at Santa Anita’s Turf Club. That room has hosted the best of the best since the 1930‘s and almost every Hollywood blueblood or great musician has walked it’s hallowed floors at one time or another. The track itself is beyond spectacular, with a stunning view of the San Gabriel mountains and enough art-deco chic to keep ones gaze enthralled for months. The Turf Club has been a favorite of mine for longer than I care to think about and opening day (always the day after Christmas) is one of my most beloved of holiday traditions. Last year I couldn’t get in, there was a mysterious cover story about “all the tables being reserved” and I didn’t get a straight answer so I bagged the idea. Next year I thought.

Recent rumblings caught my ear that a group of LA-based investors and peeps in The Biz had leased the space out from Santa Anita, poured a few million bucks into a remodel and reopened the now-defunct Turf Club as a premium level, invite only, special events space and night club. Okay, that’s good-right? The economics of horse racing have changed and those huge attendance days of the 80’s are generally over so maybe it’s time to look at the harsh realities of paying the bills. Turf Club attendance was down and the room needed a remodel for sure anyway. So I decided to do some footwork and see what had become of one of my favorite haunts. I mean, how bad can it really be.

The Kubler-Ross model of grief and loss, the five steps by which people process such emotions, seemed a fitting way to describe what I found out and felt about it, so here it is-

My first response was denial. Why would someone close the turf club to the public? I know it could use some elbow grease and new blood but it really was a fine room that just yearned for a little love much like the tree from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” needed a warm blanket and loving hands. I pondered the reasoning. Could it be the space was underperforming financially and the track wanted to dump it? Certainly they want to keep the Turf Club vibe and give it a respectful upgrade, much like the recent and epically tasteful remodel of Disney’s Club 33. There also must be a way to enjoy the space and play the ponies, right?

A visit to their website quickly moved me into anger. I thought I was going to puke when I saw their slickly-produced promo video that popped up, featuring a slew of ridiculous neo-hipsters of the very worst sort and Jeff Goldblum banging away on the piano (note-Mr Goldblum is not retro-Hollywood royalty). It was most assuredly not reflective of the grand heritage of the room. “This will not stand!” said I “This affront to all things decent cannot be possible!” So off I rode in a cloud of dust like Don Quixote to tilt at this insulting and ominous windmill.

Two days later I managed to get through to someone in media relations at the track. They put me directly in touch with the GM of the chandelier room. She was so nice and oh-so-syrupy sweet. “We get it” said she. “The Turf Club members and long-time track regulars are really upset and we are honestly trying to make it work. We also spent a lot of money making the room much more accommodating and honor the rich history of the space.” This is when I slid into bargaining. “What a dick I am! Why do I always assume that people are gonna make the worst of things? It can’t be THAT bad.” The GM explained that they are, in fact, open to the public on big race days and she would comp two of the 65 dollar tickets if I wanted to come on up for a visit. It was a very gracious and seemingly genuine offer so wifey and I decided to make a day of it

It took awhile to find the entrance, it’s pretty confusing and didn’t really need to be. When we finally found the elevator, took it up and got that first look, well, that was when the depression set it. “Oh man, I got duped-bamboozled even!” The room looked good, or at least better, but they had taken the admittedly antiquated retro charm and turned in into a Vegas hotel lobby-lots of unnecessary flat screens and bougy couches. The open middle space was taken up by a behemoth obelisk consisting of four large booths with two people sitting in each one, a classic faux-pas in the restaurant world that I see all to often, it’s a really lousy utilization of space. They had opened the joint quite a bit though and a coat of fresh paint sure helped.

The bar actually looked great with it’s refresh but instead of Frank Panza behind it dispensing wisdom and tall tales (as well as drinks) there was a row of cartoonish “mixologists” jiggering out “craft cocktails” and bruising mint. The kicker was the DJ playing the very worst of Coachella pool party-adjacent mash-ups that not only boomed to a deafening level inside the room but you could hear the din two floors down and out onto the paddock. Clearly there is no regard for “honoring the rich history of the space” despite the GM’s earnest protestations and it appeared they could not give two fucks about horse racing. It was (at least on this day) a dance club for idiot LA party trolls and their cocaine-cowgirl dates. Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Lana Turner, Ava Gardener, Frank Sinatra and the rest of the endless list of Hollywood upper crust that once enjoyed the sport of kings there must be flipping over in their graves and deservedly so.

Wifey almost cried and I barfed in my mouth a little.

We decided to spend the night in Pasadena away from the day to day distractions here in the OC, it was a nice evening spent on Old Town. Driving home the next day though was when acceptance set in. All good things do, in fact, come to an end and some suffer worse fates than others. The Turf Club’s, though, was particularly grisly. They didn’t just destroy it, they razed it…..right down to it’s soul. “Destroy” implies there are bits left, like the shells of burned out buildings after a carpet bombing, recognizable to their former inhabitants and there are enough bricks laying around that they can be rebuilt. What happened to the Turf Club is reminiscent of the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC when the Roman General Scipio destroyed the city to its foundations and plowed the earth with salt as a symbolic gesture of total desolation. The Turf Club room still exists but what made it special, its spirit, anime, mojo, whatever you want to call it, is forever gone. And I’ll never see ‘ol Dick Van Patten clutching a racing form and teetering around there with that glazed-over look on his face ever again.

I worship Santa Anita and would absolutely never….EVER….intentionally say anything to hurt the track. I wish the new venture all the luck in the world especially if it’s gonna help support one of the most venerated of courses and arguably the most stunning home of horse racing anywhere. I’m not even saying the changes are all bad but they could have been more tasteful/less cliched and they seriously need to ship the crowd there back to Douchebag Island en masse and toot sweet. If you never went to the Turf Club to experience and cherish its former glory then go to The Chandelier Room. Book a party there! Plan a special event! Have a corporate gathering! Be up in the club!

Just bring your wallet.

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