Updated on 03/01/2013 12:58PM

Jay Hovdey: Santa Anita Handicap holds on to its cachet


Somehow, perhaps by sheer force of will, or maybe some miracle adhesive, the Santa Anita Handicap clings to national relevance.

This in spite of the fact that its purse of $750,000 is hardly unique, its handicap conditions have become archaic, and its position on the calendar places it squarely in the teeth of the planet’s richest horse race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup. All things considered, it very easily could have fallen off the radar by now, suffering the same fate as treasured races that once were every bit as significant to both players and fans.

The Brooklyn Handicap, first run in 1887, spent most of its history as a mile and one-quarter event coveted by every major stable in the East. Pick a good horse and he probably won it: Whisk Broom, Stymie, Assault, Whirlaway, Kelso, Gun Bow, Buckpasser, Damascus, and Forego, just for starters.

Then in 1972 the tinkering began. The Brooklyn was shortened to a mile and three-sixteenths, briefly switched back to a mile and a quarter, stretched to a mile and a half, trimmed to a mile and three-eighths and a mile and one-eighth before spiraling back to a mile and a half and billed as feeder race for the Breeders’ Cup Marathon. At one point, the Brooklyn was moved to a Friday in the shadow of the Belmont Stakes. Nobody gets into this game to win races on a Friday.

The Californian (always cap T, cap C) was created at Hollywood Park in 1954 as a mile and one-sixteenth stand-alone prize, neither sprinting fish or distance fowl, and for its first 26 runnings it took a pretty good horse to get the job done, as long as your idea of a good horse is Swaps, Dr. Fager, Cougar II, Ancient Title, or Affirmed.

Then, in order to keep Spectacular Bid in town for at least one more start, Hollywood threw tradition to the wind and upped The Californian’s 1980 renewal to a mile and one-eighth. Spectacular Bid obliged by setting a track record, but the bloom on the race was gone.

There was a time when Gulfstream Park Handicap and the Widener Handicap stood tall as the highlights of the Florida season for older horses. But the Widener died in 2002, a shell of its former glory, ravaged by Hialeah’s woes.

At the same time, the Gulfstream Park Handicap found itself marginalized by the Donn Handicap at its home track as well as the World Cup from afar. In response, the race went from 59 uninterrupted runnings at 10 furlongs to a mile and three-sixteenths and more recently to a mile. Winners like Skip Away, Cigar, Round Table, and Coaltown may weep, but at least the race is still around.

The same can be said for the Pimlico Special, sort of. The race exploded onto the scene in 1937 when Triple Crown winner War Admiral walked his beat, then lost to Seabiscuit the following year when the Special played host to their historic match.

For the past decade, however, the Special has been treated as anything but. Five times since 2002 it has been deemed an economic indulgence and removed from the Pimlico stakes schedule. Twice during that same period the Special was won by the eventual Horse of the Year. In 2013 they’ll try running it again, offering a purse of $300,000 on May 17. A Friday.

So two or three cheers for the evergreen Santa Anita Handicap, an unapologetic mile and a quarter on dirt, and since 1968 always run in early March. This time around former winners Game On Dude (2011) and Ron the Greek (2012) would seem to tower over a field that includes the upwardly mobile Strub winner Guilt Trip, the distance-craving Stephanoatsee, and the repatriated Called to Serve, a former local boy who went east to win the Discovery (named for the beaten favorite in the second Santa Anita Handicap) and the Broad Brush (named for the mischief maker who beat Snow Chief and Ferdinand in the 1987 Handicap).

Called to Serve could give Gary Stevens his fifth victory in the Santa Anita Handicap, after which he could interview himself. But how about Carla Gaines, who will try to steal the show with the talented 6-year-old gelding John Scott. There’s got to be some kind of milestone in the mix.

In fact, Gaines would not be the first woman to train the winner of the Handicap. Helen Pitts-Blasi took care of that in 2009 with Einstein. Gaines would not even be the first trainer from Alabama to win it – that was Cotton Tinsley in 1963 with Crozier. She would be the first trainer with university degrees in sociology and psychology to win the big one, but that might be setting an unreasonable bar. And were John Scott to upset the race, it would not even be the richest score of his trainer’s career. Gaines won the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Sprint with Dancing in Silks.

The raw numbers say that while John Scott might not be able to run with Game On Dude or Ron the Greek on their best days, he should not be intimidated by the others in the field. A son of Bertrando (whose ninth in the 1993 Handicap was the worst effort of his championship season), John Scott came back from a layoff to be a modest third in the San Pasqual, then won the Crystal Water for Cal-breds on the turf. When last seen on a major stage he was fourth to Tapizar in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, right there at Santa Anita.

Gaines was asked how she envisions a John Scott victory on Saturday

“We’re trying to figure that out,” she replied, adding a laugh.

Named for co-breeders John Harris and Scott Gross, John Scott carries the familiar green and white blocks of Harris Farms. Martin Garcia will ride.

“He’s performed well on all surfaces,” Gaines said, “and in that sense he’s kind of an enigma. He’s a smart horse, so he only won by what he needed to win by the other day on the grass. In the Breeders’ Cup he didn’t break, got shuffled back to last, almost clipped heels, circled the field and got up for fourth, which was pretty amazing on a day when nothing much was closing at all.

“I know that was a mile,” Gaines added, “but he’s a very versatile horse. He’s getting nine pounds from Game On Dude, and the mile and a quarter certainly won’t be a negative.”

The Santa Anita Handicap has been a relatively formful race, but, stranger things have happened. A John Scott upset would rank with such longshot winners as Mr. Right (19-1), Ruhlmann (22-1) and Mr. Purple (18-1), but would not be in the same league as Martial Law (50-1) or Bay View (58-1).

“Actually, I don’t think the idea is all that strange,” Gaines said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have entered.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year Bertrando finished ninth in the Santa Anita Handicap. It was 1993, not 1991.

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Marc Strews More than 1 year ago
well jay another insightful article that shows an avid person the history behind the race and the history behind the horses and people.We has fans,horse owners even handicappers should be thankful on Jays articles.But for the horse in the santa anita handicap i am going for Stephanoatsee
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
The ones I had Terrang $8, Triple Bend $8 & Prince Dantan, who had in those days a circle X, superior mudder, won the maturity (strub) was driving rain storm big cap day and was OVERLOOKED at 12-1 and Baeza to boot.......like O'neill to come out of it with handsm mike/dick's kid box.....cris/cross ron'greka tri.......... ..............buenos suertes ,,, la todo gavachos/pochos......han da le puess
John C. Engelhardt More than 1 year ago
Another well written meticulously researched article by Jay.
Alex More than 1 year ago
I loved when Stuka won it with Antley
Jordan More than 1 year ago
Bertrando was 9th in the 93' Big Cap. Also beaten that day were Best Pal, Jovial, and Marquetry as longshots Sir Beaufort, Star Recruit and Major Impact ran 1-2-3.
JayHovdey More than 1 year ago
Jordan -- Absolutely, it was 1993, not '91. We'll fix that. Thanks.
Mike More than 1 year ago
The almost complete lack of American graded races at true routes of ground is stunningly sad and short sighted. For the life of me, I don't understand why breeders and owners tolerate an environment where a mile and a sixteenth or a mile and an eight is considered a distance race. Incredibly short sighted and destructive.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Didn't the "Breeding Bubble" of the 1980's produce a mind-set where everyone wanted to win early at shorter distances so they could get a quick return on the investment and get the horse into the breeding shed as soon as possible so that they could start selling the off-spring? "short sighted and destructive" is a perfect way to describe it.
Randy Baker More than 1 year ago
Fred Reardon More than 1 year ago
Hi Jay, and thanks as always. I'd just make one small quibble as the Gulfstream Park Handicap was always a race designed to compete with Hialeah's Widner as the most prestigious race of the east coast winter. From the 1930's thru the 50's the Widner and Big Cap would most often be run on the same day. The Donn Handicap was a 50k race run on a Wednesday even in the 70's into the 80's where it gained weekend status. Being named after the original owners of the track, it was pushed to the top of the heap and is a very good race that has now attained Grade One status as the top handicap race of the east coast winter. That the Big Cap remains much as it always was is a tribute in itself.
Fred Reardon More than 1 year ago
yeah, Widener!
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
These races, those Horses... Will names like that make headlines ever again? Mo Bay went like 55ish on the board out of 71 starts. Will we ever see that again? Let's hang on to The Santa Anita 'Handicap'.