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Hovdey: Return to dirt a boost for Santa Anita Handicap
By Jay Hovdey
For 60 years – through three wars, the Beatles and the dawn of the digital age – the Santa Anita Handicap was the ultimate winter-time event, the target of every serious older racehorse from the days of Seabiscuit, Citation and Round Table to eras of Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Alysheba and Best Pal.
Then, in 1996, it wasn’t.
That’s when the Dubai World Cup hit the scene, tossing out dollars like confetti and daring American trainers not to travel halfway around the world for a 1 1/4-miles main-track event on a balmy desert night, and if they didn’t, explain to their owners why:
Trainer: “It takes 14 hours for the horse to get there, if we’re lucky, after stopping in Ireland, Holland or Cairo for all I know.”
Owner: “But the purse is $4 million.”
Trainer: “Did I mention they we can’t run on any medication? Especially Lasix? And the foreign horses are quarantined?”
Owner: “They upped the purse to $5 million.”
Trainer: “We run there, you can forget about your horse running again for awhile, the trip takes so much out of them.”
Owner: “What part of $6 million don’t you understand?”
Since 2010, with the move to its new home at the opulent Meydan racing complex, the World Cup has been worth $10 million, which if nothing else reaffirms Dubai’s loyalty to the metric system. It’s a silly number, though (unless you win it), rendering all major events for older runners in the United States – with the exception of the Breeders’ Cup Classic – inconsequential by comparison.
However, with the move to Meydan the World Cup playing field was switched to a synthetic surface –Michael Dickinson’s Tapeta, in fact – which is found covering only two main-track ovals in the entire United States: Golden Gate Fields in Northern California and Presque Isle in western Pennsylvania. Santa Anita went the other way, returning to a dirt track in 2011, and just like that West’s most venerable horse race had a chance to get back in the game.
Now, the Dubai gamble for American-based runners is a real roll of the dice. It’s not their game anymore. East Coast horsemen have little or no interest in running their hidebound dirt horses on a synthetic surface. West Coast horsemen are torn, since California offers a menu of three different synthetic tracks, with only the more remote Golden Gate coming close to Meydan’s.
The Santa Anita Handicap was contested over a variety of synthetic surfaces for four seasons, 2007 through 2010. Trivia buffs will note the winners were named Lava Man, Heatseeker, Einstein and Misremembered. In 2010, for the first time since 1985, the purse was lowered from its million-dollar plateau, to $750,000, with a first prize of $450,000. For those keeping score at home, this is about what you get for finishing fourth in the World Cup, as long as your horse likes Tapeta better than most of the ambitious Europeans, Japanese and South Africans now viewing the Dubai race with renewed vigor.
Bill Mott knows what it takes to win a Dubai World Cup. Or at least he discovered it took a horse like Cigar to win the inaugural running of the international event in 1996. He has not tried since, but he’s getting ready to run champion filly Royal Delta there at the end of the month.
In the meantime, Mott is sending Ron the Greek to California for the Santa Anita Handicap. Mott finished second in the race to Heatseeker with Go Between in an exciting synthetic renewal.
“He’s a big, handsome horse,” Mott said Wednesday after putting Ron the Greek on a plane bound for California. “There’s a lot to him. He’s got a lot of charisma. He looks like the kind of horse who belongs in a race like the Santa Anita Handicap.”
If Ron the Greek rings a dim bell in the national memory, he should. As a 3-year-old he had a turn in the early Triple Crown spotlight of 2010 as the winner of the Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds. A son of Full Mandate who was bred in Florida, Ron the Greek is named for Ron Skrumbellos, a close friend of breeder and co-owner Jack T. Hammer. Skrumbellos died from lung cancer in August of 2009, before the colt made his first start.
Ron the Greek was injured while finishing sixth to Mission Impazible in the 2010 Louisiana Derby. When he resurfaced the following January he had gone from the barn of Tom Amoss to Peter Walder. Mott took over from Walder last summer and has run “Ron” four times, accounting for victories in an overnight stakes and the Queens County at Aqueduct, and most recently a second to Mucho Macho Man in the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic.
“He hit the top of the stretch that day like he was going to just go on and win,” Mott said. “Then he just couldn’t get by Mucho Macho Man, who ran a big race.”
Mott is the Eclipse Award-winning trainer of 2011 and a member of the Hall of Fame, with credits that roll from coast to coast. The Santa Anita Handicap is a prize he has yet to bag.
“I guess you’d say winning a Santa Anita Handicap is a little bit of unfinished business,” Mott said. “Remember, though, I was coming with Cigar in 1996 when he came up with a quarter crack. We took him to Dubai instead, and that worked out okay.”
Hello Jay, It is my belief that the older handicap division really needs to be more cohesive in the first quarter. With MAGNA owning the tracks with two big events, and there being no big races for older horses (since the Oaklawn Hcp has lost steam and the Pim Special doesn't exist) until the Met Mile/Stephen Foster, perhaps it wouldn't be a terrible idea to move the Donn Hcp to Jan 28, the SA Hcp four weeks later and five weeks out from the DWC (e.g. Feb 25). Though it's not of any immediately apparent value to the tracks, individually, to do this, it would do three things to help the industry: 1.) It helps create a place/short series for horses after the Breeders' Cup and Cigar Mile to start/aim their campaigns (granted they're sound). We may not be able to make a year-long ACRS-esque series, but a "big 3" focus of the Donn-SAH-DWC might be a nice late winter/first quarter lead-up. That leads us to #2: 2.) I know this seems a bit idealistic, but it could help create a "home-team" aspect to horses aiming toward the "world" cup. If the horses hate synthetic, despite Tapeta being on the more fair side of the synthetic spectrum, then they have the option to freshen up or aim toward a 500k stakes in the Oaklawn Hcp, which may fit better anyway for that type of horse. *Again, these are just thoughts, but I think they could really help the first part of the year for American older horses, and still leave time for horses to return for the big late summer/fall series of races (Hol Gold Cup/Whitney -> Pacific Classic/Woodward -> JCGC -> BCClassic). 3.) If the above *statement is true, it could create a context for international horses to follow the americans to the Breeders' Cup. Follow me here: if horses like Game On Dude and Animal Kingdom (or any two of the same caliber) run in the Donn, then the 'Big Cap', and then run (for example) second and third (or first and third) in the DWC, perhaps the horses who finish in the top 5 of that race may think they have a chance at (and more incentive) to make a date to meet them again in a $5 million, similarly conditioned race in early November. International cohesiveness, as the world gets smaller, is ultimately advantageous, even if tracks sometimes think of themselves as islands. Sorry for being long-winded. Michael
Jay: I respect you as one of the deans of California racing. Would you support moving the Big Cap to earlier in the meet? For me, the Game on Dude defection is telling. Maybe the fact Game on Dude won the Big Cap last year affected the decision. However, if the Big Cap couldn't keep a horse that's based at Santa Anita and undefeated over the surface, then I can only expect defections like this to occur year after year. $10 million is difficult to compete with. Is it time for Santa Anita to concede? Yes, Santa Anita was able to get 13 horses for the race, but they have combined for but one grade 1 win(Ultimate Eagle in the Hollywood Derby on turf). Since 2002, only one champion, Saint Liam(an Eastern shipper ironically), has started in the Big Cap. In the 16 runnings of the Big Cap in the Dubai World Cup era(1996-2011), only 4 champions have run in the Big Cap(Serena's Song, Silver Charm, Tiznow, Saint Liam). In the preceding 16 runnings of the Big Cap from 1980-1995, a champion was in the gate for 13 of them(only years with no champion were 89, 92, and 95). What about moving the Big Cap to mid-February(this year Feb 18th) or the last Saturday of February(Feb 25th this year). Since the Strub series has been rendered virtually irrelevant given the hesitancy of trainers to run 3 times from December 26th to early February, we could eliminate the San Fernando and move the Strub up to its place in the calender(or a week later) . For the horses 4 and up, we could either move the San Paqual up to the first week of the meet, or simply axe it and put the San Antonio in its spot(or a week later). Santa Anita could also raise the purse of the Big Cap, but how much would be enough to dissuade someone going for $10 million, and is a raise even feasible? I don't think Santa Anita is in a position to get involved in a purse war with Dubai.
In the synthetic years, surface was a prime reason given by fans on message boards to explain why Eastern horses weren't shipping out West in even moderate numbers for races like the Santa Anita Handicap. I knew better. Ever since I fell in love with the sport in 1989 in California, the involvement of Eastern based horses in major races has just about always been limited. In trying to explain on these message boards the decisions of certain California trainers being criticized for not going back East, I predicted that even should one of the SoCal tracks go back to dirt, an Eastern presence would remain muted. Bill Mott has always been an exception. Mott has shipped out to California in solid numbers regardless of the composition of the surface. California fans will always by fond of Mott for his sportsmanship in bringing Cigar out for the 95' Hollywood Gold Cup in the middle of his streak and then coming back in the 96' Pacific Classic when gunning for the historic #17(ironically, the loss of another of Mott's shippers, Geri, in that year's Hollywood Gold Cup factored strongly in Team Cigar's strategy for the Pacific Classic). The whole going over the Rockies thing should go both ways. Mott gets that, and I appreciate him for that. A true sportsman.
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