INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- As a small group stood on a platform overlooking the Hollywood Park backstretch, the ground shook slightly. Bushes swayed. Small talk stopped.
"Earthquake," muttered trainer Ron Ellis.
Although an association probably never has been made, it is unlikely an earthquake registering 6.0 on the Richter scale ever hit the Los Angeles area on the eve of the 51 previous Hollywood Gold Cups. But the quake that hit at 7:43 a.m. PST yesterday always will have an eerie link with horse racing.
One of the two fatalities came where the quake was much stronger -- at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, about 40 miles north of Inglewood and close to the epicenter in Sierra Madre. Julie Nickoley, 34, of San Dimas, was killed when a beam broke loose from the underside of the grandstand roof and struck her in the head.
Nickoley was observing morning workouts with her boyfriend, trainer Art Lerille, 56. They reportedly ran hand-in-hand to avoid the falling beam, but it hit Nickoley and grazed Lerille, who suffered a dislocated shoulder.
Jockey Kent Desormeaux said he was on the clubhouse turn at Santa Anita, exercising a horse, when the quake hit. "I looked back and people were running," he said. "The earthquake shook the beam loose. I guess it weighed about 200 pounds."
Aftershocks came and went in the hours following.
Aftershocks of another sort are also being felt at the halfway point of the 10-race American Championship Racing Series, which takes its sixth step today with the $1 million Hollywood Gold Cup.
Farma Way is a clear-cut favorite in the 1 1/4 -mile race, but his third-place finish in the most recent ACRS event, the Nassau County Handicap, remains the hottest topic in previewing the Gold Cup. Jockey Gary Stevens was replaced on the 4-year-old colt after trainer D. Wayne Lukas felt his Nassau County ride was unsatisfactory, but Stevens was quickly hired by Charlie Whittingham to ride Anshan today.
Whittingham has won eight Gold Cups, easily most for a trainer, and he narrowly missed a ninth last year when Sunday Silence was beaten by Criminal Type in a dramatic finish. Anshan, a 4-year-old, was shipped to Whittingham late last year and has since won two of seven starts. He is a typical Whittingham trainee: A late bloomer with a steady, off-the-pace running style who seems to be peaking at an opportune time.
L "Couldn't be asking him to do any better," said Whittingham.
The Gold Cup is rich with tradition, but fans in the East have been largely oblivious to the race. Because it was usually run about 8:40 p.m. Eastern time, few newspapers gave it much exposure, and no Eastern tracks could simulcast the race. Today, however, the Gold Cup is the fourth race on the Hollywood card, making post time 5:38 p.m. Eastern time and a nice fit for ABC's Wide World Sports. As part of the TV-conscious ACRS, many Easterners will witness the race for the first time.
Perhaps that is appropriate, because an Eastern horse is getting strong pre-race support. Summer Squall shipped to Hollywood 10 days ago and will be only the second California starter for trainer Neil Howard.
Howard, a New York native now based in the Midwest, said he hopes the Gold Cup is not a replay of last month's Pimlico Special, in which Farma Way won in wire-to-wire fashion with Summer Squall, in closest pursuit most of the way, finishing second.
"I don't know that it will be any different," said Howard. "Maybe that other horse [Marquetry] will go with Farma Way, but it might be the same scenario as the Pimlico Special. And I'll still be trying to catch him."
NOTES: Howard's only prior California starter was Weekend Delight, seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. . . . Summer Squall is stabled in Barn 65, just around the corner from the horses of Bill Shoemaker, who remains in a Denver rehabilitation facility, paralyzed from the neck down. . . . Shoemaker rode eight Gold Cup winners, one more than Laffit Pincay Jr., who rides Roanoke today. . . . It is not that astounding that Chris McCarron, who has the mount on Farma Way, is 0-for-10 in the Gold Cup. But this is: He's been second eight times. . . . Farma Way missed the Donn Handicap, first leg in the ACRS, but the Gold Cup will make him a starter in the last five ACRS events. . . . Honor Grades was scheduled to make his first start since finishing last in the Preakness in a $60,000 turf race on last night's Hollywood program. . . . Summer Squall is 2-for-3 this year, but both wins came in allowance races in Kentucky. His lone stakes victory since his 1990 Preakness win came in the Pennsylvania Derby last September. . . . Music Prospector, a distant fourth in the 1990 Preakness at 61-1, should be a similar price today. The colt has had just one start, and that a poor one, this year. . . . Bob Manfuso, part-owner of Pimlico/Laurel and a member of the Hollywood Park board of directors, was a backstretch visitor yesterday morning.