07/12/2013 2:55PM

Jay Hovdey: Sunset Handicap's roll of winners a match for any race

Benoit & Associates
Dhaamer is the latest in a long line of Sunset Handicap winners, and he will try for a repeat on Sunday.

Hollywood Park management should have saved the Sunset Handicap for Dec. 22. That’s when the lights go out for good and lingering fans hopefully will be encouraged to grab a hunk of the turf course for posterity. The Sunset has been the traditional closing-day highlight of the Hollywood Park meet since its inauguration in 1938, only then it bid farewell as the Aloha Handicap, which must have been confusing since “aloha” also means “hello.” Two years later the name was changed.

Ligaroti won the first Sunset/Aloha for Bing Crosby, while the redoubtable Dhaamer won the most recent Sunset at the end of the 2012 summer meet. Now age 6 and obviously in for the long haul, Dhaamer will be back Sunday to defend his title against a regular jambalaya of opponents, ranging from the $12,500 claimer Only the Gold to the 5-year-old mare Marketing Mix, who was less than a length away from winning an Eclipse Award.

In between Ligaroti and Dhaamer came 70 Sunset winners of great color and variety, including two in 1975 when, in some alternate universe, the race drew enough well-intentioned entries to be run in divisions.

The Sunset was run at a mile and five furlongs on the dirt, for obvious reasons, until 1967 when Hill Clown helped christen the first season of Hollywood turf racing by beating Santa Anita Handicap winner Pretense and San Juan Capistrano winner Niarkos. It helped that Hill Clown carried 109 pounds, and Bill Shoemaker never missed a meal to do it.

[SUNSET HANDICAP: Get PPs, watch Sunday's full card live]

The Sunset was one of five Grade 1 races won by Exceller in 1978 – three on turf and two on dirt – the year he was the best all-around racehorse in North America. For this he was runner-up to Seattle Slew for champion older male and to Mac Diarmida for grass champion.

In addition to Exceller, fellow Hall of Famers Fort Marcy, Cougar II, and John Henry won the turf version Sunset. Then again, what long-distance grass race didn’t John Henry win? While on the dirt, the Sunset was won by Hall of Famers Hill Prince, Swaps, and Gallant Man, who won with the race’s all-time high of 132 pounds in 1958.

Marketing Mix, the queen of Glen Hill Farm, comes off a smart comeback win in the Gamely Handicap earlier in the meet. She will try to become the first filly or mare to win the Sunset since 1990, when Eddie Gregson turned the trick with Petite Ile.

The only other female to win the Sunset was Typecast, in a 1972 performance that wrapped up what might have been the most exciting Hollywood Park meet in the track’s rich history.

That summer, 3-year-old Quack equaled the world’s record for 1 1/4 miles in defeating East Coast invader Droll Role in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge came west to carry 129 pounds in the 10-furlong Hollywood Derby and ran one of his best races to beat Bicker by a neck. Triple Bend set a world’s record for seven furlongs in the Los Angeles Handicap, and the filly Bold Liz handled the boys in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship.

Typecast ran seven times at Hollywood that season for trainer Tommy Doyle. Yes, seven. In addition to the Sunset, she won the Long Beach and the Milady, and beat males in the Hollywood Turf Invitational just seven days after narrowly losing an unforgettable match race to Glen Hill Farm’s Convenience, who was trained by Willard Proctor. For those who appreciate continuity, the freckle-faced kid helping Proctor around the barn that summer was his 16-year-old son, Tom – the same Tom Proctor who trains Marketing Mix.

Apparently, horses were once built to run often. In 1947, the 4-year-old Alibhai colt Cover Up ran seven times during the 50-day Hollywood Park meet, beginning with a third-place finish in the Argonaut Handicap and ending in a flourish with victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 26 and the Sunset Handicap on Aug. 2.

Winning big pots a week apart is a big deal, but hardly rare. The names who fit the category vary from the ancient (Exterminator, Sun Beau, Equipoise) to the modern (Conquistador Cielo, Effervescing, Proud Truth). It should be noted, however, that in winning the 1947 Hollywood Gold Cup, Cover Up ran what was believed to be the fastest 1 1/4 miles in history. Officially, he was given a clocking of two minutes flat. Joe Palmer, no less, reported in “American Race Horses of 1947” that “the tele-timer caught Cover Up in 1:59:59/100.” Fair enough.

Trainer Ross Brinson welcomed Cover Up into his barn in August 1946 under circumstances that by today’s standards would be defined as unimaginable. While racing for owner-trainer W.L. Sandstrom, Cover Up tested positive for a banned substance in a race at Del Mar. Both Sandstrom and all of his horses were suspended and could not run until the suspension ended or they were sold. Sandstrom put them up for auction, and Cover Up was bought by one of Brinson’s clients, Phoenix businessman Zack Addington, for $24,500.

Cover Up won eight races in 1947 and earned $170,150. Among older horses that year, only Armed, Stymie and Assault banked more.

Ross Brinson retired in September 1999, after turning 88. He died on June 13 at the age of 101, leaving behind a legacy embodied by his racetrack sons Gary, the official starter at Hollywood and Del Mar, and Clay, currently training a large string of horses at Canterbury Park. Clay was born two months after his father took charge of Cover Up.

“That was a helluva summer,” Clay said. “Every horse my dad ever had he’d judge against Cover Up. The horse could really run, and Dad was proud of what he did.”