03/28/2013 12:40PM

Ten Santa Anita Derbies that left their mark

Santa Anita
Affirmed romps by eight lengths to win the 1978 Santa Anita Derby.

Let’s face it, of all the ages and inclinations that categorize the Thoroughbred racehorse, it is the 3-year-old colts who do most of the heavy lifting, both in terms of public awareness and economic impact.

Another bunch of them will assemble Saturday, April 6, for the latest version of the Santa Anita Derby, for which the total purse is $750,000, the distance is 1 1/8 miles, and the consequences are considerable. Failure is not only an option, it is a certainty for all but one.

Is there life after the Santa Anita Derby? Of course there is. It’s called the Kentucky Derby. Beyond that, a horse needs to make an airtight case for relevance, otherwise it’s back to the drawing board the following season, when a fresh crop arrives and the desperate springtime tango begins all over again.

And that’s too bad, because as a stand-alone event the Santa Anita Derby has provided everything from high drama to low comedy during the nine decades in which it has been presented, and often the results have resonated long after the craziness of the Triple Crown has faded from the news.

Here listed then, with admitted prejudice, are 10 snapshots from the big book of Santa Anita Derby history. To make the list each of the entries needed to have an impact greater than the sum of its otherwise exciting parts. Drawing from the wellspring of 76 runnings, this figured to be a daunting task, so it was decided to start with the year of the writer’s birth. My list. My rules. Enjoy.

1950: Your Host

Your Host, the winner of the 1950 Santa Anita Derby, was owned by William Goetz, who ran such prominent Hollywood studios as 20th Century Fox and Universal-International. This makes sense, because the story of Your Host was one of those you couldn’t make up if you tried.

A son of Alibhai, Your Host was born off kilter, with offset eyes and an awkward withers, afflictions compounded by a pasture accident that left him with a stride that earned him such pressbox nicknames as Twister and Ol’ Sidewinder. Then again, nobody was laughing when he ran, including Johnny Longden, who rode Your Host often and compared him to Count Fleet.

After winning the Santa Anita Derby and setting a track record at Keeneland, Your Host went favored in the Kentucky Derby. He played the role to perfection, at least to the top of the stretch, where his stout pace began to take its toll. Your Host’s ninth-place finish was wildly entertaining to East Coast writers such as Joe Palmer, who had predicted the colt’s defeat but afterward conceded, “Your Host had never run another as bad, and he did not afterward, and in any true estimate of his form the Derby had to be thrown out.”

Your Host was heard from again and again throughout the rest of a long season that was highlighted by his victory over Ponder and Hill Prince in the Thanksgiving Day Handicap at Hollywood Park. Ponder won the 1949 Kentucky Derby; Hill Prince was voted 1950 Horse of the Year.

Less than two months later, in the 1951 San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita, Your Host clipped heels and fell, suffering multiple fractures to the left leg and shoulder. He ended up owned by the insurance company that paid off on his policy and was tended to by people who refused to let him go down without a fight.

Your Host recovered, even though the left leg healed shorter than the right, and became a stallion. It would have been enough had he merely sired the major stakes winner Windy Sands, Miss Todd, and Social Climber, among others. Then in 1956, Your Host covered the mare Maid of Flight, a union that resulted in the five-time Horse of the Year Kelso.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

Your Host 2.40 2.40 2.20
Sturdy One (a-entry)   6.60 3.40
Great Circle     2.50

1955: Swaps

Swaps has been hailed as the greatest horse ever bred in California, and yet he was not even favored when he won the 1955 Santa Anita Derby by half a length over Jean’s Joe. He was still green as grass, too, all over the track from the head of the lane home. Only a giant leap of faith at that point could have put him in the picture with East Coast monster Nashua come Kentucky Derby time.

But Swaps had Bill Shoemaker in his corner, not to mention the unconventional owner-trainer team of Rex Ellsworth and Mesh Tenney. They were coolly confident in their colt, and their colt complied, leading Nashua on a merry chase at Churchill Downs for all the money.

Their point made, Swaps was shipped home to California, and Nashua ripped through his remaining Triple Crown competition. When they met again in their Washington Park match race, Nashua turned the tables on Swaps and as a result was voted Horse of the Year. Swaps was compromised by foot trouble in the match, but since there is no use making excuses in horse racing, it was up to the California colt to hit his high marks again as a 4-year-old.

This he did by winning eight of 10 races in California, Florida, and Illinois, setting or equaling world records for a mile, a mile and 70 yards, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, and 1 5/8 miles, all but one of them under 130 pounds. Yes, he was Horse of the Year.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

Swaps (b-entry) 9.20 4.00 4.90
Jean's Joe (c-entry)   2.60 2.60
Blue Ruler (c-entry)   2.60 2.60

1963: Candy Spots

Sports Illustrated’s Whitney Tower described the events on the first turn of the 1963 Santa Anita Derby as “the worst crash ever seen on a U.S. racetrack in a major stakes race.” It was not that Candy Spots won the race to maintain his unbeaten record for the Swaps team of Ellsworth, Shoemaker, and Tenney. It was that he survived to run again at all.

The chain reaction commenced as Johnny Longden rushed to the lead on Might and Main, then tapped the brakes to soften the pace. Behind Might and Main horses began to squeeze and collide. Sky Gem bore out and tripped his entrymate, Win-Em-All, who went down hard and took Denodado, Royal Tower, and Doolin Point with him.

Meanwhile, farther back in the pack Country Squire left the rail and nailed Beekeeper, and Beekeeper slammed into Candy Spots, sending him sideways into the center of the track. As disorienting as this might have been, it served to push Candy Spots wide of the four fallen horses, after which he was safely on his way to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Of the fallen three survived; Denodado did not.

Compared to the Santa Anita Derby, the troubled trip Candy Spots endured in the Kentucky Derby was little more than an expensive nuisance. He rebounded from his third to Chateaugay at Churchill Downs to take the Preakness with surprising ease. That set up a Belmont Stakes rubber match at Aqueduct between the Derby and Preakness winners in which Chateaugay, a son of Swaps, beat Candy Spots by 2 1/2 lengths.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

Candy Spots 3.40 2.80 2.60
Sky Gem (a-entry)   3.00 2.80
Round Rock     10.00

1969: Majestic Prince

The winter of 1969 in Southern California was wet and dreary, and the Santa Anita Derby won by the unbeaten Majestic Prince on March 29 was far from aesthetically pleasing. The red colt towered so far above the opposition that Bill Hartack spent the last of the 9 furlongs riding high in the saddle, at a virtual gallop, while winning by eight yawning lengths.

Still, what the Santa Anita Derby lacked in drama it made up for revving hot anticipation for an East-West confrontation in the Kentucky Derby. While Majestic Prince was separating himself from the rest of the breed in California, the other half of the country was deep in proven class, led by Florida Derby winner Top Knight, Wood Memorial winner Dike, and Blue Grass winner Arts and Letters. Majestic Prince ended up favored in Kentucky, but not by much.

After narrowly winning both the Derby and subsequent Preakness, Majestic Prince was hailed as the colt with the best chance to win the Triple Crown since Citation, in 1948. The story disintergrated into soap opera, however, when it became clear that the colt’s trainer, John Longden, did not think Majestic Prince was healthy enough for the challenge.

Longden, the only man to win the Derby as both rider and trainer, was ultimately overruled by owner Frank McMahon in a debate that went unusually public for the era. A lengthy interview in Sports Illustrated ended with McMahon’s declaration, “If he loses, so what?”

Majestic Prince ran in the Belmont, finished a well-beaten second, and never raced again. The victorious Arts and Letters went on to take honors as Horse of the Year.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

Majestic Prince 2.60 2.60 2.40
Mr. Joe F.   7.60 5.20
Lonny's Secret     4.00

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1973: Sham

Of all the remarkable Thoroughbreds foaled in 1970 – including Hall of Famers Forego, Ancient Title, Dahlia, Desert Vixen, Café Prince, and La Prevoyante − Sham was the only one who aspired to the greatness of his most famous contemporary, Secretariat. It was an admirable ambition, but ultimately doomed.

Having been a 2-year-old of some promise, Sham was fully tempered in California during the winter of 1973, where he won the Santa Catalina and equaled Lucky Debonair’s record 1 1/8-mile in the Santa Anita Derby against a deep field. From there Sham went to New York and finished in front of Secretariat in the Wood (while running second to Angle Light), a result that added bodies to the Sham bandwagon as it headed for Louisville and the Kentucky Derby. Secretariat was favored, but not by much, and to this day Laffit Pincay refuses to believe what happened in that final quarter mile when he hit the front with Sham and had yet to let him run.

[VIDEO: Watch Sham's 1973 Santa Anita Derby]

In the end, Sham became one of history’s more poignant footnotes as a colt clearly born the wrong year. It is of some consolation to Sham fans that Secretariat had to run the fastest Derby in history to defeat Sham, and that it was Sham who was closest to Secretariat at the end of a record Preakness as well. Ancient Title, Linda’s Chief, and Groshawk went on from Sham’s Santa Anita Derby to win major races, but after Sham tried Secretariat once more in the Belmont Stakes, he never raced again. He had flown too close to the sun.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

Sham 5.80 2.80 2.10
Linda's Chief   2.40 2.10
Out of the East     2.10

1978: Affirmed

As 1978 dawned, Affirmed became the first 2-year-old champion colt to spend his winter out West since 1960, when Warfare called Santa Anita his home. This should not have been surprising, since not a single 2-year-old champion during that era set so much as a foot inside of California. Warfare had run 10 times at Hollywood Park and Del Mar before heading East to win the Cowdin, the Champagne, and the Garden State Stakes; Affirmed took time out from his New York-centric 2-year-old season to win a division of the Hollywood Juvenile Championship.

Affirmed’s trainer, Lazaro Barrera, was in love with all things California, and Affirmed was immediately greeted by Californians as a conquering hero. Through the early months of 1978 the colt’s every move was clocked, from his long strolls to the track each morning from Barrera’s distant barn, to his trio of afternoon appearances, all wins, in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race, the San Felipe Handicap, and the Santa Anita Derby, which he dismissed by eight lengths in a romp that brought Majestic Prince to mind.

No Santa Anita Derby winner ever went on to do more than Affirmed. In fact, it is hard to believe any horse ever will. Winning the Triple Crown would have been enough, but then Affirmed added a 4-year-old campaign that left him the all-time money-winning champ and a two-time Horse of the Year. There is no statue of Affirmed at Santa Anita Park, but as the only horse to have won the Santa Anita Derby, the Strub Stakes, and the Santa Anita Handicap, there ought to be.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

Affirmed 2.60 2.40 2.20
Balzac   3.20 3.40
Think Snow     3.20

1986: Snow Chief

When it comes to key heats, it is hard to top the 1986 Santa Anita Derby. Snow Chief, the little black Cal-bred, already had been east to win a 16-horse Florida Derby. In Santa Anita’s version he had way too much speed and won by six, while the majestic chestnut Ferdinand, still emerging as a professional racehorse, closed with purpose to be third.

From there Snow Chief went on to lose to Ferdinand as the Kentucky Derby favorite, burned out on a pace enhanced by the sprinter Zabaleta. Trainer Mel Stute shook it off, then came right back with Snow Chief to defeat Ferdinand handily in the Preakness. After adding the Jersey Derby, Snow Chief was voted champion 3-year-old, and no one argued the point.

Both colts missed the second half of the 1986 season, but they were far from finished. Upon racing’s return to Santa Anita in December of that year, Ferdinand beat Snow Chief in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, then in February Snow Chief edged Ferdinand by a nose in the 1 1/4-mile Strub.

Snow Chief later added the 1987 Oaklawn Handicap, but he was injured and retired in June, allowing Ferdinand to carry their torch all the way to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and 1987 Horse of the Year.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

Snow Chief 2.60 2.60 2.20
Icy Groom   5.00 3.20
Ferdinand     3.00

1989: Sunday Silence

Of the 76 Santa Anita Derby winners dating back to Greentree Stable’s Gillie in 1935, none has had more impact on the Thoroughbred breed than Sunday Silence − as long as you’re OK with that impact being felt almost exclusively in Japan.

Such was the legacy of the 1989 winner, a fiery, sickle-hocked sales reject whose innate desire to both fight and flee were evident to his trainer, Charlie Whittingham, from the moment Sunday Silence began working seriously at age 2. Nothing ever was easy for the near black colt, not even his 11-length victory in the ’89 Santa Anita Derby, in which he was under a steady lash from Pat Valenzuela in spite of his lopsided win.

From there Sunday Silence had to prove himself all over again in the Triple Crown, which he did on an icy first Saturday in May at the Derby, and then again on a golden afternoon at Pimlico, when his New York rival Easy Goer gave the California colt his best shot and just missed. In the Belmont it was Easy Goer’s turn, which is exactly the way the script needed to read in order for their final confrontation that November in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to carry its considerable weight. When Sunday Silence prevailed by a head, under a hand ride from Chris McCarron, he could finally take a breath. He was clearly the Horse of the Year.

Sunday Silence’s odd economic banishment to Japan raised eyebrows, but the Thoroughbred world was beginning to expand, and his value to his adopted country was breathtaking. The 12 foal crops he sired before his death, in 2002, resulted in 48 individuals who earned the equivalent of a million dollars, a testimony not only to the riches of the Japanese purse structure but also to the fact that the sons and daughters of Sunday Silence usually could be found at the highest levels. Just like dad.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

Sunday Silence 6.80 3.40 2.80
Flying Continental   5.40 3.40
Music Merci     3.40

1992: A.P. Indy

Majestic Prince was the top-priced yearling of his generation, at $250,000 in 1967. Add a zero and then some for A.P. Indy, a son of Seattle Slew and grandson of Secretariat who cost Japanese owner Tomonori Tsurumaki $2.9 million when he topped the sales charts in 1990.

In action, A.P. Indy always looked like he was working harder than he was. Perhaps it was the manner in which he carried his head low, thrusting ever forward, while exposing jockey Eddie Delahoussaye to all sorts of blowback from the horses they followed. Only thing is, they did not follow for long.

A.P. Indy’s victory in the 1992 Santa Anita Derby was an efficient piece of work by 1 3/4 lengths over Bertrando, who went on to be a champion at age 4. As far as trainer Neil Drysdale was concerned, the race was just right to get A.P. Indy to Churchill Downs in peak form. Unfortunately, all four feet did not follow. On the morning of the Kentucky Derby, Drysdale announced A.P. Indy would be staying in his stall, nursing a damaged hoof.

By the end of business that Derby day, the A.P. Indy news had disappeared below the fold. Arazi, the European super colt, ran aground in the Derby at 90 cents on the dollar, leaving the race to Lil E. Tee and his popular Kentucky connections. What ifs? filled the air, as Casual Lies, third to A.P. Indy at Santa Anita, finished second, beaten only a length.

Order was restored when A.P. Indy returned to win the Peter Pan and the Belmont Stakes. Later he overcame a recurrence of foot trouble to be in perfect form to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic that fall. He was voted 1992 Horse of the Year, a fitting honor that looked even better alongside his championships as a stallion who sired such runners as Mineshaft, Bernardini, and Rag and Riches.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

A.P. Indy 3.80 2.20 2.20
Bertrando   2.20 2.20
Casual Lies     2.40

1997: Free House

Free House and Silver Charm were the Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns of their era. Only instead of just two bruising bouts that rocked all of boxing, they tore at each other in seven races, East Coast and West, until only the image of an eight-legged mass of dappled white and gray remains.

Silver Charm and Free House won two of California’s best races for 2-year-olds – the Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk Stakes – in 1996 before their first 3-year-old encounter in the 1997 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. Decision, Silver Charm.

Free House took the subsequent San Felipe and then won a thriller of a Santa Anita Derby, in which Gary Stevens had to play offense and defense with Silver Charm, eyeballing the classy filly Sharp Cat on the lead while clocking Free House from behind. At the end of a fast nine furlongs it was Free House by a short head.

The 1997 Triple Crown series produced three races of high drama among four high quality colts. Silver Charm beat Captain Bodgit narrowly in the Derby with Free House third. The three of them finished as one in the Preakness, as heads separated Silver Charm, Free House, and Captain Bodgit in that order, while Touch Gold got off the deck after a nightmare start to be fourth. In the Belmont, with a Triple Crown on the line, Silver Charm finally put Free House away, but then along came Touch Gold, running on a repaired hoof, to steal the show.

As the seasons changed, the 1997 Santa Anita Derby kept on giving. Sharp Cat went on to win races such as the Acorn, the Ruffian, and the Beldame. As an older horse Free House took the Swaps, the San Antonio, and the Pacific Classic. Silver Charm won an unforgettable Dubai World Cup in 1998 and came within three-quarters of a length of adding the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that year. When Silver Charm and Free House met for the final time, as 5-year-olds in the 1999 Santa Anita Handicap, Free House came first and his rival was third, only a length separating the two at the end of their long road.

$2 Mutuel Prices:

Free House (a-entry) 16.60 6.00 3.40
Silver Charm   3.60 2.80
Hello      3.40