This year's edition won't add to Big 'Cap legacy
From the beginning, the odds were against it. Build a million-dollar track in the middle of the Depression? People don't have enough to eat, and they're going to play the horses? Great idea said the skeptics. In this sad, bad world, the smart money usually is on the naysayers. This time, they got it all wrong.
The Great Race Place in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains was a hit from its beginnings in 1934, and its marquee event with a $100,000 purse was a major factor. The list of Santa Anita Handicap winners reads like a roll call of the immortals: Affirmed, John Henry, Round Table, Seabiscuit, Spectacular Bid; Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Johnny Longden, Eddie Arcaro; Charlie Whittingham, Jack Van Berg, Ron McAnally.
"It's one of the great races," said trainer Richard Mandella, who won it in 1997 and 1998 with Siphon and Malek.
The Big 'Cap has packed them in ever since its first running on Feb. 23, 1935, when there was more drama in the winner's circle than during longshot Azucar's three-length romp under George "The Iceman" Woolf. Azucar did a world-class freakout, scattering bodies as he bucked berserkly and dragged a man desperately holding his reins 50 yards toward the clubhouse turn. After knocking off 19 rivals that included top-ranked handicapper Equipoise and classic winners Twenty Grand, Faireno and Head Play, maybe the former English steeplechaser just felt like jumping out of his skin.
A few years later, a rags-to-riches critter who became an American folk hero put the Big 'Cap into the national consciousness. Santa Anita Park is located only 15 minutes from Hollywood, yet not even the dream factory could have concocted the improbable saga of Seabiscuit. The little horse put his body and spirit on the line three times in the country's first "hundred grander," and gut-wrenching defeats in 1937 and '38 set the stage for his career finale in the 1940 renewal.
Seabiscuit galloped off into the realm of legends with a wildly popular triumph, setting a track record of 2:01 1/5 for 1 1/4 miles that would stand for 10 years. It was his 33rd victory and 13th track record in a six-year odyssey that inspired "The Story of Seabiscuit," a stunningly bad movie that featured child star Shirley Temple. By all accounts, "Seabiscuit," a film coming out this summer, is infinitely better.
Santa Anita will commemorate Seabiscuit and the 66th Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday by giving away an audio bobblehead statuette. Not only does Seabiscuit's neck go up and down, but the unique piece of memorabilia also plays Joe Hernandez' call of the 1940 Big 'Cap. I'll be shipping in from Long Island to attend, and my horse-loving 13-year-old daughter, Beth, eagerly awaits her souvenir.
Santa Anita also will host a Microbrew Festival, where 20 mini-breweries will peddle their unique suds to people clutching their audio bobbleheads. Besides local radio personalities, D.J. Omar and the band World Tribe will make the scene. I've never heard of them, and neither has my daughter, but maybe some of her friends have.
Unfortunately, gimmickry and show biz are needed to sell the great races. Tradition isn't what it used to be, and there's no going back. People are so hooked on sports stuff that they'll go just about anywhere for a freebie, and a towel or hat with a logo boosts attendance a lot more than a standout thoroughbred.
In North America, handicap racing has become increasingly unpopular, a throwback that's turning into a throwaway. Gone are the days when stars such as Seabiscuit proved their greatness by carrying 130 pounds or more against all challengers. The breed seems to get more fragile by the year, and with purses so lucrative in weight-for-age races, even a million-dollar pot doesn't guarantee the best possible field.
It didn't this time, either. Because of trainer Bobby Frankel's concern with weight, he withdrew the 4-year-old colt Medaglia d'Oro from the race Tuesday morning. That bailout short-circuited a meeting of North America's top two older horses and left the 5-year-old Congaree the heavy favorite and the likely lone speed.
Both were assigned 124 pounds, the top weight for a Big 'Cap starter since Silver Charm ran third to Free House five years ago. To Frankel, his horse was being burdened unfairly.
"They're starting him off too high for this early in the year," he was quoted as saying in Wednesday's edition of the Daily Racing Form. "How could they give him 124? He's only run once against older horses, and that was in a weight-for-age race. He's never been in a handicap before.
"After Tiznow won the Breeders' Cup Classic for the first time , he carried 122 in the next year's Big 'Cap, and my horse gets 124? And another thing, my horse is a year younger than Congaree. They just need to make all Grade I races weight-for-age."
If Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro had run, this Big 'Cap might have been one of the best in years. Both race on or near the pace, so it would have been intriguing from the start and maybe all the way around. Frankel still will send out deep closer and defending champion Milwaukee Brew, who will try to join John Henry (1981 and '82) as the only two-time Big 'Cap winners.
Chances are good that Jerry Bailey will cruise around the track on Congaree and win by daylight at 3-5. Except for the horse's connections and shameless chalk players, that won't be much fun. I'm angry, and I want my bobblehead.
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