03/06/2014 1:55PM

Jay Hovdey: Santa Anita Handicap reclaims its glorious past


The last time the first two finishers in the Breeders’ Cup Classic met early the following season was on Feb. 6, 2000, at Santa Anita Park. Those who do not remember the day are forgiven.

Cat Thief and Budroyale were hardly household names, either before or after their 1-2 finish in the 1999 Classic at Gulfstream Park. Cat Thief was 19-1 and Budroyale was 26-1. Of more lasting impact was the Classic’s $1 superfecta payoff of $692,907, completed by 75-1 Golden Missile and 63-1 Chester House. Somebody had a lucky phone number.

Three months later Budroyale reversed the Classic finish by beating Cat Thief by 1 1/4 lengths in the San Antonio. In the subsequent Santa Anita Handicap they both trailed General Challenge, with Budroyale second and Cat Thief sixth. By the end of 2000 Cat Thief was retired, with four wins from 30 starts to his name, while the redoubtable Budroyale had been eclipsed by his little brother, Tiznow.

In contrast, consider the excitement being generated by Saturday’s 77th running of the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap, featuring a rematch of the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge. Clearly there are so few four-legged celebrities to go around these days that to find two of them in the starting gate at the same time is cause for a national holiday. Stir in the presence of two-time Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude, and the stage is set for something positively operatic.

When last seen at Santa Anita, Mucho Macho Man was holding off Will Take Charge to win the Classic by a nose, while Game On Dude, the Classic favorite, fired a dud and finished far back.

[DRF Live: Get live reports and handicapping insights from DRF writers and handicappers this Saturday]

This season, Mucho Macho Man dismantled Florida-breds in the Sunshine Millions Classic, Will Take Charge ran a solid second to the freaking Lea in the Donn, and Game On Dude tossed in another clunker as the heavy choice in the San Antonio over his home course. The imagination soars.

During the three decades of the Breeders’ Cup era there have been any number of Santa Anita Handicap fields as richly stocked as the one poised for Saturday. It has been 15 years, though, since the Handicap went three deep with marquee names, when Free House beat Event of the Year and Silver Charm in 1999.

Two years earlier, Richard Mandella threw everything but the barn cat at the Handicap and ran 1-2-3 with his South American monsters Siphon, Sandpit, and Gentlemen. Also in the 1997 field were subsequent Arlington Million winner Marlin and the emergent Formal Gold, who had just won the Donn and would later take the Brooklyn, the Iselin, and the Woodward.

Observers didn’t know it at the time, but the 1991 running of the Santa Anita Handicap might have been the key heat to end all key heats. First-place Farma Way already had taken the San Carlos, the San Pasqual, and the San Antonio and would go on to win the Pimlico Special. Second-place Festin later added the Oaklawn Handicap, the Nassau County, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Third-place Pleasant Tap was still a year away from his top form, when he was champion older male of 1992, while fourth-place In Excess left California to win the Met Mile, the Suburban, the Whitney, and the Woodward.

Towering over them all is the Santa Anita Handicap run on March 6, 1988, which reunited Ferdinand, Alysheba, and Judge Angelucci from their 1-2-3 masterpiece in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic. They were joined by the 8-year-old Super Diamond, winner of the 1986 Hollywood Gold Cup. And that was it, four runners for a cool million.

Chris McCarron, who came up a nose short of beating Ferdinand and Bill Shoemaker in the ’87 Classic, was asked this week if the disappointment lingered into 1988.

“You mean thoughts of vindication, retaliation, revenge?” McCarron said. “Those things never crossed my mind.”

Or hardly at all. More importantly, when the Handicap came around, McCarron knew the 4-year-old version of Alysheba had become a different weapon. No longer was he the kind of colt whose move had to be timed to accommodate a tendency to idle on the lead, a newfound maturity Alysheba impressively displayed in running off with the Strub Stakes to prepare for the Santa Anita Handicap.

Apparently, Shoemaker was paying attention.

“Shoe rode the Handicap like it was a match race,” McCarron said. “He put Ferdinand to the task going down the backside.”

Moving together, Alysheba and Ferdinand caught the front-running Super Diamond and Judge Angelucci on the far turn, and for a few intoxicating strides the four raced abreast, straight out of Ben-Hur.

“I guess Shoe assumed that Ferdinand might be able to withstand a longer drive than Alysheba,” McCarron said. “Fortunately, he was wrong.”

But not by much. At the end of 10 furlongs in 1:59.80 it was Alysheba by half a length.

On Saturday, look for Mucho Macho Man to play the part of the handier Alysheba, calling much of the tune, with a more mature Will Take Charge in the role of Ferdinand, relentless in pursuit.

“I hope it materializes,” McCarron said. “If it does, that will really get the crowd on their feet.”