03/02/2011 5:51PM

Weight spreads help foster great races


According to the inflation calculator on my iPad – not as cool as the Justin Bieber app, I know – $100,000 in 1935 would be worth $1.6 million in purchasing power today. This means the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap is a long way from keeping up standards set when it was first run 76 years ago, when it was the first U.S. race to offer a hundred grand. But it’s still the richest handicap in the land, along with the similarly endowed Whitney, and that has got to count for something.

The campaign against handicaps has quieted down lately. There was a great elitist roar for a good part of the past decade or so, ruing the fact that in major handicaps weights were arbitrarily assigned in an effort – went the talking point -–“to get the best horse beat.” The point was put forth that the general public would be both confounded and turned off by such an obviously socialist philosophy. But then, the general public doesn’t pay a whit of attention to horse racing unless mares beat the boys or some 3-year-old takes the Derby and the Preakness. So why not nurse along a few anachronisms, just for old times?

The Anti-cappers have tried urging the American Graded Stakes Committee to withhold Grade 1 ranking from handicaps, and the pressure has resulted in tracks shifting a handful of traditional events to allowances or weight-for-age. Then again, let’s hear it for the Hollywood Gold Cup, which underwent a weight-for-age makeover in 1997 after 57 runnings as a handicap, then switched back in 2005.

Of course, a race like the Gold Cup can hide its personality. “Handicap” was never part of its name. The Santa Anita Handicap, to be run for the 74th time on Saturday, is a race that could never be anything but a handicap, since the very word is so ingrained in its identity.

Every time the subject comes up – of changing the weight conditions – officials get stuck on what to call the dang thing. The “Santa Anita” just kind of dangles. “Santa Anita Classic” is a lame plagiarism, and the “Santa Anita Invitational” backs the racing office into a corner. Some wise guy suggested the Santa Anita Handi Wipe, but that would work only with a lucrative sponsorship attached. Still, if the track fathers are ever intent on making the change, I have always thought the race should be called “The Big One” and left at that.

The point always can be argued that without weight spreads there might not have been such memorable Santa Anita Handicap finishes as the following:

◗ 1938, 3-year-old Stagehand, carrying 100 pounds, beat Seabiscuit, under 130, by a nose.

◗ 1945, Thumbs Up, under 130 pounds and John Longden, gave Texas Sandman 14 pounds and beat him a head.

◗ 1946, War Knight, with Johnny Adams packing 115, beat First Fiddle (126) a nose, while Snow Boots (112) was another nose back in third.

◗ 1957, Charlie Whittingham won his first handicap with Corn Husker, who carried 105 pounds and beat Holandes II (121) a half-length.

◗ 1975, over a deep and rutted track, Stardust Mel gave Out of the East 11 pounds, 123-112, and won by a nose.

◗ 1977, Faliraki, under 114, threw a scare into Crystal Water, under 122, before losing by a head.

As far as that goes, Saturday’s running marks the 25th anniversary of the day Jack Van Berg nearly stole the first million-dollar running of the Santa Anita Handicap with a 157-1 longshot named Herat.

Among the field of 13 in the gate on March 2, 1986, were such household names as Greinton, Precisionist, Vanlandingham, and Gate Dancer, supported by a robust cast of stakes winners. Greinton carried 122 and Laffit Pincay. Herat packed 112 and Rafael Meza. The rest of them had a good view.

“I had Gate Dancer in there too, so everybody thought Heart was a rabbit,” Van Berg said. “I didn’t do anything to discourage that thinking, figuring they might leave him alone.”

And they did. Herat took the field through six furlongs in 1:09.20 and a mile in 1:34 flat and still had a daylight lead passing the eighth pole. Pincay put Greinton into a power drive to get up and win by three-quarters of a length, then got off and uttered the line of the day:

“Who was that other horse?”

Of nearly as much historical interest as the compelling action was the training patterns of the two principals leading up to the race. Greinton had not run since the previous November, when he finished seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Aqueduct. Herat was coming out of a so-so fourth in the San Antonio Handicap two weeks earlier. Howell Wynne, proud owner of Greinton with Whittingham and Mary Bradley, just happened to have the Daily Racing Form past performance handy.

“Look what Charlie did,“ Wynne said, as if reading from the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Greinton’s last four works were a mile in 1:37, three-eighths in 36 and one, a mile and a quarter in 2:04, then five-eighths in 57 and one. You don’t see that pattern too often anymore.”

Actually never. As for Herat, the pocket-sized son of Northern Dancer did not work at all between the San Antonio and the Handicap.

“I let him go two miles in his gallops, letting him get the last mile in 1:55 or 1:56,” Van Berg said. “That’s how you can get them speed horses carry their speed doing that.

“I thought I had him,” Van Berg added. “If it hadn’t been Pincay on Greinton I still think he would have won, but Pincay’s so damn strong. He made the difference.”

And the weights made it interesting.