02/29/2012 4:21PM

Hovdey: Return to dirt a boost for Santa Anita Handicap

Lynn Roberts
Ron the Greek will try to give Bill Mott his first victory in the Santa Anita Handicap.

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.”