02/26/2008 12:00AM

Seven decades of Big Cap storylines

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is both too early and unfair to pass judgment on the quality of the Santa Anita Handicap field before us, even though it's easy to complain.

After all, Saturday's 71st running of the million-dollar, 1 1/4-mile event will feature the winners of the Pacific Classic, the Strub, the San Fernando, the San Pasqual, the Sunshine Millions Classic, the Pacific Classic, the San Marcos, the Goodwood, the Native Diver, the Del Mar Derby, the Bay Meadows Derby, and the Robert Lewis, which makes for an encouraging and entertaining mix.

Unfortunately, the runners attached to those races have done little else besides win the Pacific Classic, the Strub, the San Fernando, etc. If there is a budding superstar in the bunch, it might be Monterey Jazz, an exciting speed freak who has found his stride. Or it could be Tiago, who will try to become the first horse since General Challenge to win both the Santa Anita Derby and Santa Anita Handicap.

Since every season brings its own cast of characters, it is unreasonable to expect every Santa Anita Handicap to emulate the running of 20 years ago, when Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba beat Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand by a half-length. There were only four horses in the field that day, but so what?

Then again, please spare us from another Handicap like the four-horse field of 1998, when Silver Charm was scratched and odds-on Gentlemen bled so badly he couldn't handle third-place Don't Blame Rio. Malek beat Bagshot that day, or something like that.

Seventy years ago, Stagehand took the Santa Anita Derby over Dauber (the same Dauber who later won the Preakness) and then two weeks later beat Seabiscuit by a nose in the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap, carrying 100 pounds to Seabiscuit's 130. John Hervey, writing in "American Race Horses of 1938," avowed that "a more thrilling struggle was never witnessed." He also mentioned that Stagehand could have been claimed for $3,000 at the meet.

Sixty years ago, Charlie Whittingham trained the horses while Horatio Luro trained the owners, and it was a lethal combination. One of the best was the dapple gray Talon, from Argentina, who beat local hero On Trust by a nose in the 1948 Santa Anita Handicap, much to Luro's delight. Later that same year, Whittingham was given an honorable discharge by Luro, who urged Charlie to go out on his own and wrote in a note to his high-priced assistant, "You make too much the money."

Fifty years ago Round Table won the Santa Anita Handicap while carrying 130 pounds, beating Terrang by 2 1/2 lengths in a track record 1:59 4/5. The Handicap was Round Table's fifth stakes win of the Santa Anita meet. In 1958 he won 14 of 20 starts, over both grass and dirt, at nine different tracks, carried 130 pounds or more on 12 occasions, and earned a record $662,780. By today's standards, he would be Bill Gates and win the Nobel Peace Prize. Back then he had to settle for Horse of the Year.

Forty years ago the 1968 Santa Anita Handicap was run in the same sticky bog that brought 1967 Horse of the Year Damascus to his knees in the Strub Stakes the month before. By the time the March 9 Handicap was run, Damascus had left town, inspiring 15 horses to show up in the absence of the champ. Mr. Right proved best on the day, beating a talented bunch that included Quicken Tree and Rising Market, although Tumble Wind and O'Hara were eased in the going, and they were good horses.

Mr. Right was bred in New York. That's amazing enough. He was also a wedding present from famed band-leader Eddie Duchin to his pianist son, Peter. The younger Duchin never really pursued the racing game, but he still runs Duchin Entertainment and will bring his orchestra to your special event if the price is right. Kim Novak played Peter's mother in "The Eddy Duchin Story," and that alone will always make me a fan of Mr. Right.

Finally, it was a mere 30 years ago that Vigors completed his metamorphosis from a highly capable grass horse into a main-track monster by beating Strub winner Mr. Redoy and defending champion Crystal Water in the 1978 Santa Anita Handicap. Proven turf runners Champs Elysses and Medici Code will try to emulate Vigors on Saturday, but true comparisons are thin, like comparing apples to polymers. Vigors was shifting to old-fashioned clay and loam, while Saturday's grass fugitives need only handle this week's version of a synthetic surface.

At any rate, it will take another couple of generations at least to come up with a package like Vigors. Tall, long-legged, and nearly white, this guy was more dramatic than a bucket full of Barrymores. He basically ignored the first half of his races, gliding along far afield, until Darrell McHargue whispered some sweet nothing in his ear. The Handicap was his third main-track win in three tries, coming over a "slow" surface he probably didn't even like, and it was by far his most astonishing performance. Sandy Hawley, on Mr. Redoy, had 3 1/2 lengths inside the eighth pole and was still going strong. Vigors engulfed them to win by 2 1/2.

"My horse was not stopping," Hawley still insists. "Honest, he wasn't."

Believe it.