02/27/2013 4:46PM

Jay Hovdey: A first Santa Anita Handicap still a thriller

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Cougar II was a temperamental stretch-runner who could give his jockeys fits.

There were no shadows. I remember that. The homestretch seemed shrouded in grays and dark tans as Kennedy Road, his wide blaze a welcome beacon under threatening skies, separated himself from the pack and made for home. To his outside, Kennedy Road was quickly joined by his favored stablemate, Cougar II, and for the last hundred yards they ran as one, heads bobbing to the screams of nearly 60,000 people in the stands until, at the wire, Cougar’s nose dipped at the perfect moment.

Anyway, that’s how I remember it, like it was last weekend, which should be no surprise since the 1973 Santa Anita Handicap was my first, and impressionable young’uns with bad haircuts who are fresh out of college tend to hoard such experiences long after they are of any practical use.

In March of 1973 I was three deep on a three-man track publicity team topped by Dan Smith and Jeff Tufts, who between them had witnessed more great California races that could be counted. Even they were left properly breathless by what happened that March 10 afternoon.

Mind you, there were a few other things going on in horse racing at the time, most of them involving the freshly syndicated Secretariat and his potential West Coast challenger Sham, not to mention such real world distractions as Vietnam peace talks, Roe v. Wade, and the dawn of the Watergate hearings.

But for those of us safely cocooned behind racetrack gates, the one and only story of the Santa Anita Handicap rested squarely upon the shoulders of the “Big Cat,” because Cougar had it all. He was a reigning turf champion who went both ways, a temperamental stretch-runner who could give his jockeys fits, and a sight to behold in full flight with his head high, his knees pumping, and his long tail streaming like a dark vapor trail. He also had the hard-luck Seabiscuit angle going for him as runner-up in both the 1971 and 1972 runnings of the Handicap. And to top it all off his trainer, Charlie Whittingham, was attempting to perform a minor miracle by bringing Cougar up to the race after a four-month competitive layoff.

“That was a big deal,” said Smith, whose first Santa Anita Handicap was the 1958 running won by Round Table under 130 pounds. “Guys ran their horses back then and weren’t afraid to get them beat getting them ready for the big ones. The idea of running cold into a race like the Santa Anita Handicap was very unusual, and there were naysayers who said he couldn’t do it.”

Then again, Whittingham had a backup plan named Kennedy Road. He wasn’t Cougar, but he did win the 1972 Queen’s Plate and was a Canadian champ in his own right.

That winter at Santa Anita, while Cougar trained, Kennedy Road danced every dance. He was disqualified from first in the San Carlos, ran second to mud freak Single Agent in a sloppy San Pasqual, then won the San Antonio Handicap right on top of the Handicap.

He was also the antihero to Cougar’s matinee idol image. Raw-boned and rude, Kennedy Road would fix you with a white-rimmed eye, then catch a whiff of his lead pony and drop an erection that sent nervous giggles through even the most sophisticated racetrack crowd. Don Pierce, who rode him often, had to be ready for anything.

“He never lost me, but he came close,” Pierce recalled. “I won a race on him at Santa Anita – the San Antonio I think – and galloping back for the unsaddling he wheeled and went down the tunnel and into the walking ring. I finally got him pulled up and turned around, and we jogged back up to the winner’s circle.”

Cougar also had his quirks.

“He was very mental,” said Laffit Pincay, who was replacing an injured Bill Shoemaker for the ’73 Handicap. “Sometimes he didn’t like it if you hit him too hard, or if he hit an uneven spot in the ground. If he didn’t like something he wouldn’t do it, even if he could do it.”

So there they were, a pair of four-legged head cases, throwing down for all the dough in the biggest race on the California calendar. Whittingham watched with a zen-like detachment, secure in the knowledge he’d be cutting into the lion’s share of the $170,000 purse no matter what. Not even the blinking lights of the “inquiry” sign fazed the trainer as he made his way to the track.

“Kennedy Road would kind of wait for horses, then lean on them,” Pierce said. “That day when Cougar came to him he was leaning out and I had to keep straightening him. He only got beat a hair, so I know it cost him the race.

“I think Cougar was lugging in, too,” Pierce added, “and there was an inquiry, mostly against Cougar. But actually my horse was causing it as much as him.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Pierce told the stewards.

“Hell if I did,” he said. “I told them that sumbitch was all over me.”

The result stood.

“Cougar did everything right that day,” Pincay said. “And it was my first win in the Santa Anita Handicap, so that made it very special.”

Pincay won the Santa Anita Handicap five times, Pierce won four, and Whittingham won nine. They are all in the Hall of Fame, along with Cougar, while Kennedy Road is enshrined in the Canadian counterpart.

There will be fans witnessing their first Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday – when the race is run for the 76th time under the same conditions of a mile and a quarter on the main track as when it was first run in 1935. And while it would be unreasonable to expect the level of drama reached by Cougar and Kennedy Road 40 years ago, there is every reason to hope that Game On Dude, Ron the Greek, and company will provide Handicap rookies with a searing memory of their very own.

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