Updated on 03/01/2013 11:58AM

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.