The history of Santa Anita Handicap filled with memorable moments
I think we can all agree that Saturday’s $650,000 Santa Anita Class I handicap field doesn’t rival some of the old Big ‘Caps. Not even close.
Yes, Express Train is a handsome horse and a deserved favorite in the historic event’s 85th race, but we’re talking about the nation’s first $100,000 race which dates back to 1935 and has drawn legends such as Citation, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and John Henry throughout its history.
But that’s not the fault of Santa Anita management. The $20m Saudi Cup and $12m Dubai World Cup robbed the Big ‘Cap of some major players who might normally have entered the race were it not for those potential mega salaries in the Middle -East.
Hot Rod Charlie, who became a fan favorite and finished second to Express Train in the Santa Anita opener at the San Antonio Stakes on Dec. 26, could race on Saturday if not for the Dubai riches. March 26. There are others in the past years, like Maximum Security, that might have stayed home and raced in the Big ‘Cap if it weren’t for the lure of more lucrative scholarships elsewhere.
We’ve certainly seen the last of the Big ‘Caps like 1988, when two Kentucky Derby winners, Ferdinand (1986) and Alysheba (1987), met in a colossal showdown won by Chris McCarron and Alysheba. There were 70,432 people on track that day, the sixth highest turnout in race history.
How about the Big ‘Caps of 1979 and 80 when the Affirmed triple crown winner and Kentucky Derby champion Spectacular Bid found the winner’s circle in consecutive years. The Bid’s trainer, the late Buddy Delp, was one of the most colorful riders to ever saddle a Big ‘Cap winner.
Who can forget John Henry, who won back-to-back Santa Anita Handicaps victories in 1981 and 1982, the latter victory thanks to the disqualification of Perrault and Laffit Pincay Jr. for interference in the stretch. It was one of the most exciting and dramatic Big ‘Caps I’ve seen in person.
One of my favorites was Vigors’ victory in the 1978 race. Vigors, who went from grass to main track and became a monster from behind for a short time, closed from afar that day under Darrel McHargue and beat Mr. Redoy. You need to go to YouTube and watch a replay of this race if you haven’t seen it already. The “Big White Horse”, as track announcer Dave Johnson called it, was something to behold.
The legendary Seabiscuit raced in three Big ‘Caps, finishing second in 1937 and 1938, then finally winning the race two years later on his third try with Red Pollard on board. His career was well documented in the 2003 film starring Jeff Bridges as his owner Charles S. Howard, Chris Cooper as trainer Tom Smith and Tobey Maguire as Pollard.
You have to hand it over to the connections of Autocrat, who attempted a record five times to win the Big ‘Cap but failed each time – 10th in 1945, eighth in ’46 and ’47, 11th in ’48 and seventh in ‘ 49. I may have given up after the third failed attempt, but that’s just me.
Four horses have won consecutive Santa Anita handicaps, including Game On Dude (2013-14), Lava Man (2006-07), Milwaukee Brew (2002-03) and John Henry. Milwaukee Brew was owned by Frank Stronach, father of Belinda Stronach, the current CEO of Santa Anita’s parent company, The Stronach Group, and trained by the late great Bobby Frankel.
Trainer John Sadler and Hronis Racing recently took over the race, winning three consecutive years with Accelerate (2018), Gift Box (2019) and Combatant (2020) until Idol and trainer Richard Baltas broke that streak last year with an emotional half-race. long victory over Express Train.
One thing is certain about this year’s Big ‘Cap – Joel Rosario will not win the race for a record fourth consecutive year. He is not riding in Santa Anita this winter and does not have a mount for the 1¼ mile race.
Mike Smith is the only other jockey to win the race for three consecutive years, finding the winner’s circle twice with Game On Dude and completing his trifecta with Shared Belief in 2015.
One of my greatest racing memories was the 1985 race. I was in Las Vegas, sitting in the old Barbary Coast sports betting house, and was amazed to see cars parked on the course in grass to accommodate the crowd of 85,527 at the track, the largest crowd in Big ‘Cap history. Lord At War with the legendary duo of Bill Shoemaker and Charlie Whittingham beat Greinton that afternoon.
We’ll never see those glory years again, but they’re certainly fun to look back on and remember the sport’s great history.
Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73