This week brings the Santa Anita Handicap, one of horse racing’s biggest events. It also marks the anniversary of the largest payout in the race’s history. That win by a 58-to-1 shot from nowhere came as America stood on the brink of another daunting war. It’s linked to a long shot of another kind that still bears looking at. That story involved a bottle-cap manufacturing tycoon from Maryland, who made the trip across the country for the Handicap.
Charles McManus and wife Eva went to the Santa Anita track with two bottling clients and their wives. The Handicap’s $100,000 purse made it racing’s biggest day of the year. Seabiscuit, America’s favorite, had won the year before. The park was just seven years old, and that day in 1941 the track glistened after an unexpected rain. The grandstand overflowed with twenty thousand people. Bing Crosby and Clark Gable mugged for newsreel cameras.
On the program was a horse named Bay View. He had only run two races and had done poorly in both. “That’s the name of the hospital out by the factory,” McManus said, referring to what’s now Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. So he put money on Bay View, a sentimental gamble with no chance.
As a long shot himself, McManus empathized. Raised in a rough part of Baltimore, he was shot in a school incident, partly blinded, and dropped out. For years he bounced around various jobs and towns. Eventually he got to New York City in the early 1900s to pursue his dream of becoming an inventor. He had a hunger: Make something new. He tested recipes for a better bottle cap in his apartment, obtained his first patent and a contract to make Gulden mustard jar caps. Fast-forward 30 years: he was one of the richest men in Maryland with a salary of over $1.8 million in 2015 dollars.
In 1941 the public spotlight on cork was growing hot. In the era before plastics, cork was crucial for seals like gaskets in cars and airplanes. America imported over half the world’s cork, all from the Mediterranean where it grew. A 1941 Commerce Department report highlighted America’s dependence on scarce foreign supplies of cork and calling for rationing. The threat to the supply of cork was a national security problem.
Out of the gate that day, Bay View soon appeared in third place on the outside and steadily advancing. The final stretch was neck-and-neck as Mioland, the favorite, surged. The scrum at the finish line was a blur.
Bay View had won. A $2 bet won you $118.40.
McManus had wagered much more. “I don’t know what Dad bet on that horse, but he won,” Junior said later. “He divided the winnings among all the ladies there. They never forgot it up till the day they died. They’d always remember that.”
By then McManus had another stake in California beyond the racetrack. The state had become a detective story for him, holding, he hoped, the solution to the Nazi blockade that cut his supply line of cork. During a previous visit to San Francisco, McManus on a drive to the Napa valley glimpsed a tree that made him stop the car. He took out a penknife and sliced a piece of bark. It was cork, growing far from its native Mediterranean. He made plans for testing, and collecting acorns. He ordered climate maps of the U.S. showing zones favorable for growing cork. He even chartered a plane to fly acorns collected in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains (specially chosen to resist North American winters) to Maryland, and quick planting in the nursery. His tree detective in California was a forester at UC-Berkeley with the Chandlerian name of Woodbridge Metcalf, who discovered cork groves dating back to the Spanish period, and a shipment of acorns ordered by the Patent Office in San Francisco in 1858.
That started the nationwide McManus Cork Oak Project. Make America free of dependence on vulnerable foreign supplies. Get families and 4-H clubs shoveling earth for the young seedlings, nurturing the soil, giving them something to do against the fear that was brewing. By 1941, the cork oak program was in full swing, with a web of contacts combing the state for cork oaks and rumors of them, thousands from Napa to Los Angeles. In L.A., a parks crew found 2,000 cork oaks growing and the L.A. Forestry Department created a card about every tree. They found 140 spreading cork canopies along highways in the San Fernando Valley. East of Santa Anita in Duarte, then a hub of citrus and avocado growers, they found a cluster of 30-year-old cork oaks. With their axes and knives they sheered the spongy bark like a sheep’s wool, as Hollywood-bound traffic whizzed past. The crew pried off 8-foot-long slabs, one after another, to grow America’s self-reliance. Lab tests showed it was commercial-quality cork. Thousands signed up to grow seedlings. The McManus Cork Project took off.
These harvest trips were happening as American’s fears of war escalated. U.S. and state officials were coming down on immigrants they labeled potential “enemy aliens.” In the months to come, Japanese- and Italian-American communities within five miles of the coast would be displaced completely, deemed security risks by the government. These factors surely complicated the responses that cork investigators encountered in those neighborhoods, as they came on private land. California’s Attorney-General Earl Warren in particular took a hard line. Within months, thousands of families would be forced to relocate, and soon 100,000 Japanese-Americans would be interned in camps in the vastnesses of the West.
The tree-growing campaign lasted through the war, heralded in the press and endorsed by shovel-toting governors. Cork’s run ended only when plastics boomed and replaced it after the war. But American invention and the desire to take action remained a good bet. The experience of America during that period shows the glimmers of that invention and risk-taking, alongside the shadows of fear that many Americans endured silently.