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Add another classic to Santa Anita's list of thrilling turf races
By Jay Hovdey
Before the high tide of history washes over last weekend’s action, it might be wise to linger just a moment longer on the running of the San Luis Obispo Handicap, won by Champ Pegasus by a nose over Bourbon Bay at the end of 1 1/2 miles. It was one of those races.
Since its turf course was built in 1953, Santa Anita has been the setting for any number of transcendent competitive moments among older horses on the grass. Two will forever stand out, unassailable at the top of the heap, number one being the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap, in which John Longden somehow got George Royal’s nose down first in what was announced well in advance as Longden’s last ride. He was 59.
Number two, and there seems to be very little argument, is the 1970 running of the San Juan Capistrano, which came down to four horses hitting the line as one at the end of 1 3/4 miles, with Fiddle Isle and Quicken Tree in a dead heat for the win, flanked by Fort Marcy and Hitchcock. Ben Hur’s four white Arabians never looked so fierce.
The 2011 San Luis Obispo could never live up to either of those, bearing neither the historic significance nor the depth of field. The race will rank high among the rest of the best, however, for all the right reasons.
Consider the confluence of talent. Bourbon Bay, the winner of four major stakes over the Santa Anita course, is trained by Hall of Famer Neil Drysdale and ridden by Rafael Bejarano, Santa Anita’s leading jockey the past three seasons. Champ Pegasus, winner of the Clement Hirsch Turf Memorial and the Del Mar Handicap as well as runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, is trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella and ridden by Joel Rosario, who is determined to knock Bejarano off his perch.
They were the two best horses in the race and acted the part. When the real running began at the head of the stretch, Bourbon Bay had the jump but Champ Pegasus quickly closed the gap, and for the last eighth of a mile they were on top of each other, matching strides at the end, with both riders down low using hands and only showing the whips. It took them more than 2 1/2 minutes to finish the job over the soft ground, but it was worth it.
Mandella has been involved in at least two of the other Santa Anita grass races on the all-time list. The most obvious is the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Turf, in which Mandella’s horse Johar finished in a dead-heat with Coolmore’s horse High Chaparral, while sharing the frame with Falbrav, only a head behind the top two.
In 1993, Mandella trained Kotashaan, the North American turf champ and Horse of the Year. Just as Bourbon Bay has Champ Pegasus to verify his quality, Kotashaan had Bien Bien at his throat time and time again, most desperately in the ’93 version of the San Juan Capistrano.
Bien Bien, who had given Fraise all he could handle in the Hollywood Derby the year before, opened up a lead in the stretch after more than 1 1/2 miles had been run. Then came Kotashaan and Kent Desormeaux with the same kick they used to catch and pass Bien Bien in the San Luis Rey. This time Bien Bien, under, Chris McCarron, had something left, forcing Kotashaan to run the best race of his life.
“It took a 34-year-old course record to beat my horse a nose,” said McCarron after the race, and he was right.
Of John Henry’s 10 stakes victories over the Santa Anita turf, none was more dramatic than his victory over Spence Bay in the 1981 running of the Oak Tree Invitational.
If ever a horse deserved not to lose, it was Spence Bay. Alas, John Henry was at the peak of his considerable powers that season, having already clinched Horse of the Year by winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup. But at level weights, the Oak Tree was a race in which John Henry needed to compete, even though he was at the end of a long campaign. And Spence Bay was a fresh and formidable opponent, coming straight from a icy score in the Burke Handicap over the course.
Midway through the stretch, Spence Bay appeared to have John Henry’s measure. Correct that – he had John Henry beat. If you were there, you knew it. Then, from a place possessed only by those horses who make us cry, John Henry summoned a moment to remember, when, inside the final sixteenth, he actually picked up speed to pass a dead-game Spence Bay and win by a neck.
“To this day, I still can’t believe I lost that race,” said Fernando Toro, Spence Bay’s rider, not too long ago.
Beyond those grand memories lurk many more: the statuesque mares Exchange and Trishyde in a tangle at the end of 10 furlongs in the 1993 Santa Barbara Handicap, the cloudy gray filly La Zanzara bursting away from the large pack of boys in the 1975 San Juan, Bill Shoemaker’s wire-to-wire masterpiece with the miler Olden Times in the 1962 San Juan, Waya’s dominance of the 1979 Santa Barbara under 131 pounds.
Bourbon Bay and Champ Pegasus, now among that list, hopefully will meet again. If they don’t, they owe fans nothing. Neil Drysdale was asked if his brave runner-up was exhausted from his San Luis Obispo effort.
“In fact, not at all,” Drysdale said. “Rafael told me he didn’t like the soft going, so he really didn’t turn his head loose until the last part. And then he only lost it right on the bob at the wire. What a tough way to lose.”
But what a great way to play.
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