04/14/2016 11:20AM

Hovdey: Bells toll for once-great San Juan Capistrano


If this were a merciful world, and let’s pretend that it is, that would have been the final running of the San Juan Capistrano last Sunday at Santa Anita Park. The race needs to be put out of its misery. Devalued, downgraded, and roundly ignored, what was once the aesthetic pinnacle of West Coast grass racing has become a ghost, a remnant, whatever it is that comes after an afterthought.

Whoever let the San Juan get to this point should be ashamed, but the suspects are many. American breeders stopped breeding 1 3/4-mile horses who like the grass. European owners stopped sending their third- or fourth-best runners to Southern California trainers. Local racing programs contracted, and purses congealed around main-track racing, providing little incentive to ship westward for even the most historic turf events. And never forget the closing of Hollywood Park. Just about everything wrong can be blamed to some degree on the closing of Hollywood Park.

Over the past few years, the following grass stakes open to all comers were eliminated from the Southern California schedule: the San Luis Obispo, the Jim Murray, the Sunset, and the John Henry, formerly the Oak Tree Invitational. Also getting the ax were the Santa Barbara, the Beverly Hills, and the original Yellow Ribbon, all staples of the female turf menu.

With such a winnowing, you would think there would be money available to goose up the surviving events. Think again.

California’s top purse in 2015 for an open, graded turf stakes at more than a mile was the Eddie Read, at $400,000, which is not bad unless you have a horse who’s just warming up at the end of nine furlongs. Then, your choices were the Del Mar Handicap or the Hollywood Turf Cup, each at $250,000, or the Whittingham, the San Marcos, and the San Luis Rey, all at $200,000. The 2015 San Juan Capistrano was worth $150,000. This year, the purse was $100,000. There are maiden races in New York worth $100,000.

Apples and oranges, I know. But the apples of the Southern California long-distance turf scene used to be ripe and delicious, and the San Juan was the ultimate prize. Indulge a little history.

Seabiscuit won the San Juan when it was 14 furlongs on dirt. So did Triplicate, owned by Fred Astaire, and Noor, in an epic struggle with Citation.

St. Vincent won the first San Juan on the grass in 1955, defeating Kentucky Derby winner Determine. Olden Times was good enough to win both the 1962 San Juan and the 1964 Metropolitan Mile. The greatest San Juan ever run was John Longden’s last ride in 1966, when he won with George Royal, unless it was the dead-heat between Fiddle Isle and Quicken Tree in 1970, with Horse of the Year Fort Marcy a nose away from a triple-heater.

On and on the San Juan rolled, its purse hitting $400,000, then half a million. Great Communicator bookended 1988 with the San Juan and the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Kotashaan edged Bien Bien on his way to 1993 Horse of the Year. Marlin doubled up the 1997 San Juan and the Arlington Million, while Meteor Storm took the 2004 San Juan, then added the Manhattan on Belmont Day.

That’s the kind of horse you needed to win the San Juan, and the San Juan was that kind of race.

As the fields thinned, the remorseless American Graded Stakes Committee weighed in, and the San Juan tumbled to a Grade 3 event clinging to Grade 1 memories. The minimum purse for a Grade 3 race is $100,000, so that’s where it sits in the Santa Anita stakes universe, a hollow shell of its history.

If last Sunday’s San Juan was the last San Juan, at least it went out on an appropriate note, won by the 8-year-old Chilean stayer Quick Casablanca for owner Pablo Gomez and Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally after finishing third in the San Marcos and second in the San Luis Rey. Only Charlie Whittingham won more San Juans than McAnally.

“Yeah, but I’m too old now to win it 14 times,” McAnally said with a laugh, referring to how many Whittingham won.

McAnally’s four San Juans began with John Henry in 1980, the first of his four campaigns as North America’s grass champion. The trainer came back in 1998 with Verne Winchell’s Amerique, then added the globetrotting Interaction in 2013.

“Don’t forget the favorite I scratched,” McAnally reminded.

That was also John Henry, in 1981, when the trainer exercised caution with his emerging star and passed the San Juan, only because the full distance of the race required a brief passage over the muddy main track.

“I wasn’t concerned about the soft turf,” McAnally said. “But the change back and forth over the muddy strip was a concern.”

John Henry ended up being Horse of the Year anyway.

Management was faced with a similar predicament last Sunday – crossing a muddy main strip five-eighths of a mile into the race – so they punted and turned the 2016 San Juan into a 15-furlong excursion, round and round the infield course. If nothing else, it was entertaining, and Quick Casablanca made a move on the final turn for Tyler Baze that would have done any winner proud.

Whether or not the San Juan continues is academic, although it has earned a noble retirement and should be either renamed or dropped. It is not the San Juan of Seabiscuit, Mr. Consistency, Cougar II, Tiller, Exceller, Lemhi Gold, and John Henry. But at least a piece of it still belongs to McAnally, whose public stable has fallen on quiet times.

“I’ve said all along, just give me the horse,” McAnally said. “Our job is to keep them fit and sound and keep them happy. All it takes is the right horse.”

The San Juan Capistrano is 76. McAnally is 83. One of them is still going strong.