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
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
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