Bing Crosby chased a woman's hat when it blew off in the wind. Fred Astaire bet on a horse named Twenty Grand. Mrs. Clark Gable wore a suit made of leather. It was Feb. 23, 1935, and a veritable "who's who" of culture filled the stands at the newly opened Santa Anita Race Track. When 20 horses went to the post for the inaugural running of the Santa Anita Handicap, no one expected a 7-year-old steeplechaser to win.
But Azucar, that Irish-bred gelding with the Spanish name for "sugar," did win. Detroiter Frederick Alger Jr., 27, had purchased Azucar for $8,000 before the chestnut gelding earned $109,500 while trouncing some of the best horses in the country at Santa Anita -- including six-time champion Equipoise and Twenty Grand, who was brought out of retirement, in which he'd been since 1932.
Azucar was the winner of the Charles L. Appleton Memorial Cup Steeplechase in 1933, purchased by Alger in August of 1934 from the legendary Joseph E. Widner, who had imported the gelding from England in 1931. At the time, Widner was serving as the president of Belmont Park after purchasing controlling interest in the Miami Jockey Club and renovating Hialeah Park. He ultimately would own 12 steeplechase champions, and Alger, perhaps inspired by that legacy, had planned to run his new chestnut in the 1935 Grand National.
It wasn't a stretch of the imagination; Azucar was no slouch. In addition to his 1933 'chasing score, he had finished second in that year's Broad Hollow Steeplechase Handicap. In 1932, his first year in the U.S., he'd finished second in the Appleton Memorial Cup. But he also had showed such speed to trainer James Rushton -- often outdistancing workmates on flat ground -- that Alger decided to try and race him there. The gamble paid off.
In 1934, the chestnut gelding finished second to Faireno in the Havre de Grace Handicap, ahead of the world-record-breaking Discovery. He then ticked off victories in the Corinthian Handicap at Belmont, the Washington Handicap at Laurel and the New Year's Stakes at Santa Anita before taking on the giants in the Big Cap at odds of 12-1.
"The son of Milesius out of Clarice started slow, was 14th at the quarter, 11th at the half, fourth at the three-quarters, came up to the lead shortly after the stretch, and breezed in a two-length winner," the Palm Beach Daily News read the next day. His winning time of 2:02 1/5 under master reinsman George Woolf set a track record and was just two seconds off the world record at the time. He paid $26.80 to win.
After the race was over, suddenly claustrophobic in the midst of a throng of well-wishers, Azucar shied at the blanket of roses and bolted, slashing the NBC radio wire and cutting short the national broadcast. He dragged his groom a good 150 yards down the track before the unfortunate handler was finally forced to let go, but luckily the gelding was apprehended by a track outrider before he could get far.
The injuries caused by Azucar's tangle with the wires plagued the rest of his season. He finished second by a staggering 30 lengths to Discovery in the Detroit Challenge Cup, was second that year in the Colonel Alger Memorial Handicap and posted two thirds in the Pontchartrain and Derby Week Special Handicaps.
But Santa Anita was the site of his greatest triumphs, and Azucar came back strong in January of 1936. He won the San Felipe Handicap by a head, paying $42.80 on a $2 ticket, running the mile in 1:36 (one-fifth of a second off the track record at the time). On Feb. 8, he ran third in the San Antonio Handicap, then wheeled back two weeks later on Feb. 22 to run fourth in the second running of the Big Cap. In March, he won the Fashion Stakes at Bay Meadows. In April, he ran third in the Marchbank Handicap at Tanforan. In May, he ran second in the Bay Meadows Handicap. In September, he ran third behind Seabiscuit in the Governor's Handicap at the Detroit Fairgrounds, and in October, he ran second in an attempt to take another edition of the Washington Handicap at Laurel Park.
In 1937, Azucar won the Michigan Handicap. It would be his final victory. He missed the Col. Frederick M. Alger Memorial Handicap in Detroit by half a length and ran third in the Frontier Handicap in Canada. Finally, he returned to steeplechasing, running third in the Shillelagh Steeplechase at Saratoga Race Course in the summer of that season.
Azucar made his final start in 1938. He finished off the board, and perhaps Alger finally realized it was time, after 61 starts and seven years on the racetrack, to hang up his tack. The hard-knocking gelding's final record stands at 13 wins, 11 places and 11 shows. Although he may not hold a place in horse racing's Hall of Fame, there is a street -- Azucar Avenue in San Jose, Calif. -- named in his honor.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.