07/01/2017 12:26PM

Hovdey: Some of racing's greats have provided fireworks on Fourth of July


Some of the best racing the game has ever seen has been part of Fourth of July celebrations. Not the Fifth or the Third but smack on the day, when no one went to work and the racetrack was just the ticket.

Dr. Fager, John Henry, Easy Goer, Bold Ruler, and Riva Ridge all adorned Fourth of July events with victories, some of those memories still fresh. Arlington Park was lucky to get Seabiscuit for the Stars and Stripes Handicap of July 4, 1938, when he was in demand far and wide. War Minstrel, though, was not impressed. Getting 23 pounds from Seabiscuit, he won by 3 1/2 lengths on a sloppy track.

Twenty Grand was the baddest 3-year-old in the land and fresh off a 10-length romp in the Belmont Stakes when he won the Dwyer at Aqueduct on July 4, 1931. Calumet’s Coaltown beat Calumet’s Armed in the Stars and Stripes at Arlington Park on July 4,1949, then in the American Handicap at Hollywood Park on July 4, 1951, Calumet’s Citation beat Calumet’s Bewitch.

If there has been a more celebratory running of the Brooklyn Handicap, it would have to top the one at Belmont Park on July 4, 1945. Victory in Europe was declared on May 8, after which the wartime ban on racing was lifted. Stymie, the People’s Horse, celebrated the Fourth in the Brooklyn by defeating two-time champion Devil Diver by 1 1/4 lengths.

The Fourth of July continued to deliver racing history. On the holiday in 1956, Nashua defeated Dedicate in the Suburban at Belmont a few hours before Swaps set a world record for nine furlongs in the American at Hollywood Park. On July 4, 1959, Round Table carried 132 pounds to victory in the Stars and Stripes at Washington Park, then his rival Hillsdale answered out West by winning the American under 130, spotting runner-up Find 21 pounds.

The Fourth of 1962 overflowed with benchmark moments. Prove It beat Windy Sands in the American to maintain his place as the best in the West. At Monmouth Park, Primonetta continued her march to a championship by handling Shirley Jones in the Molly Pitcher. The real fireworks were at Belmont Park, though, where Kelso, Carry Back, and Beau Purple made up three-fourths of a four-horse Suburban Handicap. Making his first start for Allen Jerkens, Beau Purple led every step of the 1 1/4 miles.

This year’s Fourth of July is on a Tuesday, which, as far as racetrack managers are concerned, is no day at all. It is with reluctance that some tracks even open, let alone present a stakes event that echoes the significance of the date. In this era of three-, four-, and five-day holiday weekends, the good stuff is batched on Saturdays.

This time around, the only major track taking the Fourth of July seriously with a graded stakes event is Santa Anita Park. The American Stakes heads the program, marking the final day of the uninterrupted meet that began Dec. 26.

The race was born at the dawn of Hollywood Park in 1938 and won on the main track by Citation, Noor, Swaps, and Hillsdale. Shifted to the new Hollywood turf course in 1968, the parade continued with winners like Fiddle Isle, Ack Ack, John Henry, and Tight Spot.

For some reason, the American was shortened to a mile in 2011 and moved to May. When Hollywood closed, Santa Anita picked it up in 2014 but could not do much about the date since Los Alamitos ran on the Fourth, until this year. Now, the American is back to when it was intended, if not what or where.

Gary Stevens has won the American four times, most recently on July 4, 2003, aboard the Argentinian star Candy Ride. On Tuesday, Stevens is looking forward to his reunion with Om, who came within a nose of winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint last year at Santa Anita. Dan Hendricks trains the son of Munnings.

“I haven’t been on him in the mornings, but he looks great,” Stevens said. “I think Dan is waiting to use me to light the fuse.”

Growing up in Idaho, Stevens and his two brothers took full advantage of Fourth of July traditions.

“Our Fourth of July went on for two weeks before and two weeks after,” Stevens said. “The Stevens boys were blowing up mailboxes and doing all sorts of crazy stuff.

“When we started racing, I was 16 when I won the Stars and Stripes Handicap at Les Bois Park on a horse for my dad,” he added. “There was a big cottonwood tree on the middle of the turn. When we went behind the tree, I was head-and-head with my brother Scott. When we came out, I was three in front.

“Scott claimed foul, and they took me down,” Stevens said. “But I didn’t do anything. I went into the stewards the next day and went all G-Stevens on them. They said they didn’t really have any video proof, but if Scott claimed foul against me and my dad, it had to be bad. I got days and a $250 fine for disrespecting the stewards that’s still on my record.”

And brother Scott?

“He got kicked out of the house for a while,” Stevens said. “But I don’t think he cared since he’d just bought a new trailer house and was looking forward to moving out.”