Peter Cunningham visits the Santa Anita Derby, where a galaxy of B-list stars comes out to upstage the horses
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Lazy Pacific seagulls are riding the warm air currents against the spectacular backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains. Herb Alpert (whose name is difficult to say without adding "and his Tijuana Brass") is gazing down at the horses as they go to the post. There is the muffled sound of Californian champagne being opened. This is Derby weekend in Los Angeles.

They run this pounds 1 million race here in the first Saturday in April, and because celebrities would go to a breakdown in a Sarajevo ceasefire in order to be photographed, they have come in numbers in a valiant attempt to upstage the horses. The night before in Pasedena, British racehorse owners looked on in bemusement as old-timers James Garner and Jack Lemmon cranked through their paces. They were shooting a movie called My Fellow Americans. Lauren Bacall brushed in and out and Walter Cronkite, once legendary newsreader, seemed as if he might be having quite a job recognising the other three. They all looked as if a trip to the races might be just the thing to liven them up.

The Santa Anita racetrack is a one-hour drive north-east from downtown Los Angeles. I get a lift with a genial Brit from Monte Carlo called Michael Tabor, whose horse Thunder Gulch ran away with the Kentucky Derby last year. I met Tabor in the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Rodeo Drive, one of the great hotels of the planet where even the blotting paper at your desk is changed every day. Pretty Woman was set here, but if you wander into the lobby and hide in the giant display of gladioli in the hope of snatching a gander at Julia Roberts' legs, you may have to make do with Margaret Thatcher's, a compromise perhaps, but one which emphasises the standing of this landmark in luxury.

The mountains draw nearer, some of them snow-capped. Mr Tabor's chauffeur- driven car pulls up at the owner's and trainer's entrance but good scout that my host is, he won't hear of my offer of a five dollar contribution to the petrol. In a surge of friendship I decide instead to have it on his horse, Honour and Glory.

The Director's Room in Santa Anita, decorated with original oils by Munnings and lit by chandeliers, sighs with the confident whisper of wealth. The smooth looking gent at the buffet is, I am told, Elizabeth Taylor's attorney, Neil Papiano. I suppose he has other clients, although with Ms Taylor he may not need them. Neil steps back gallantly to allow one-time Miss America, Mary Ann Mobley and her actor husband, Gary Collins, unrestricted access to the king prawns. The temperature outside is 90 degrees. Horses cross the line in an exciting finish. Jackie Cooper, who has aged quite a bit since I saw him last, breaks into the self- congratulatary smile of a grown-up who has backed a winner.

Celebrity out here is like royalty used to be back home before the Squidgy tapes. People yearn to gape and, if they're lucky, to touch. The celebs appear at places like racetracks, often for a fee, in order to sustain this symbolic relationship. It's easy to see how a public hypnotised by television since birth would want to stand and stare at John Forsyth and Linda Evans of Dynasty who both look, well, exactly like they did on Dynasty. Likewise for Kenny Rogers and Chuck Norris, bearded grey and ginger respectively.

What's more difficult to understand is the public's fascination for Kato Kaelin, OJ Simpson's former lodger, who has done nothing in life except give a new meaning to the term "houseguest". The crowd all bay as if they want him to come and stay in their garden sheds. Kato waves shyly and tucks his hair back so that one of the three television crews following him can get his profile. They're even ignoring the horses. Honestly.

"It's hot as hell in here," says Kjell Qvale. He once owned the Jensen motor car company in England. Kjell, pronounced shell, is a man who likes to back a winner - which may explain why, when Tony Benn came to power, he closed Jensen down. We make our way to watch the jockeys mounting for the big one.

Gary Stevens is every racing man's pin-up. Built like a pocket Hercules, he's just back from Dubai where, in the world's richest race, his mount, owned by Burt Bacharach, nearly upset the odds on the legendary racehorse Cigar.

"I earn about one and a half million bucks a year," says Gary, whose great ambition is to ride in the Epsom Derby. "My agent takes 25 per cent and 40 per cent of what's left goes on taxes."

Lo and behold, Gary's riding Honour and Glory. It's all too auspicious to ignore. My five dollars swells to 20. I rush to the automated betting facility and try not to pry over Mel Brooks's shoulder at the details of what he's having on.

Honour and Glory does his best but it's not good enough this afternoon. He's placed second and the blizzard of tickets being discarded from the upper levels makes Ann Bancroft appear to be walking towards her table in a snow storm.

"That's horse racing," growls Billy MacDonald, a beefy, Los Angeles based Belfastman whose complexion resembles harvest time at a Mexican chilli farm. David Niven Jnr, Pierce Brosnan and Shirley MacLaine are good friends of his, drawn to his anecdotes delivered in an accent that somehow twins California and the Falls Road. We walk out from the massive grandstand. It's still in the mid-eighties. Punters are standing around, waiting to glimpse the glitterati diving into limos the length of Regent Street. Punting side by side with the stars for an afternoon, we allow ourselves to trade a little of our honour for the glory.