I was born and raised in Southern California and grew up a racing fan. During the winter, one message was repeated over and over – “If you can only make it to the races one day, make it Santa Anita Handicap Day.”
In a five year period, I was fortunate to witness these incredible Santa Anita Handicaps:
I saw the big white horse – Vigors – get slammed at the break and rally to make up an impossible deficit to win the 1978 Big ‘Cap under now steward Darrell McHargue.
Triple Crown winner Affirmed announced his return to top form destroying the field in the 1979 Big ‘Cap in a Stakes record 1:58 3/5 for the 1-1/4 miles.
Spectacular Bid had one of the best 4-year-old campaigns in recent memory and toyed with the field in the 1980 Big ‘Cap.
The venerable John Henry won the 1981 Big ‘Cap under Laffit Pincay Jr., then came back and won the 1982 Big ‘Cap under Bill Shoemaker via disqualification when Perrault under Pincay pushed John Henry out several lanes through the stretch.
Now surrounded by the $16 million Pegasus World Invitational in January and the $10 million Dubai World Cup at the end of March, the Santa Anita Handicap has lost much of its importance as a key winter Grade I race for older horses. In fact, the purse for this year has been reduced to $600,000 after being $750,000 in 2017 and as much as $1 million in prior years.
With top Bob Baffert-trained 4-year-old West Coast likely headed to Dubai March 31, the headliners for the 2018 Big ‘Cap figure to include Accelerate from the John Sadler stable, Giant Expectations from the stable of trainer Pete Eurton, and perhaps course specialist Top of the Game. Expect the Baffert stable to be represented, too, with horses like Mubtaahij, Hoppertunity, and Irish Freedom among those he can chose from.
It may not be the marquee event it used to be, but the Big ‘Cap is still a must-see to me given the rich tradition and history.
SA Stakes to Follow
Also included on Saturday’s Santa Anita card are a key 3-year-old Triple Crown prep in the Grade II $400,000 San Felipe Stakes, and a chance to see Eclipse Award winners in the Grade I Triple Bend Stakes and Grade I Kilroe Mile.
The San Felipe is expected to be the 2018 debut for Grade I winner Bolt D’Oro for trainer Mick Ruis. Javier Castellano has picked up the mount, and in fact flew cross country to work Bolt D’Oro from the gate in his penultimate work for the race. Trainer Bob Baffert will be represented as usual. His Grade I winner McKinzie will run after turning in a super seven furlong drill last Sunday. His stablemate Solomini will be pointed to the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn March 17.
2017 Eclipse Award winning sprinter Roy H will be a prohibitive favorite in the seven furlong Triple Bend. Trainer Peter Miller is using the race as a prep for the Golden Shaheen in Dubai March 31, but the way Roy H toyed with his foes in the Grade II Palos Verdes Feb. 3 suggests he is heads and tails above the local sprinters.
World Approval, the 2017 Eclipse Award winner for Turf Horse based on his win in the Breeders Cup Mile, returns to California after a deceptively easy win in his 2018 debut at Tampa Bay Downs in the Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes. He will have to run down a rejuvenated Om, who woke up when he was allowed to roll early and hung on gamely to win the Grade III Thunder Road Stakes at Santa Anita Feb. 10.
New post times
Santa Anita will kick off a six-week experiment with earlier post times starting this weekend. First post time for this Saturday is 12 noon, and after we turn the clocks forward Saturday evening, first post time this Sunday will be 11:30 a.m. Weekday post times will also be noon starting March 15.
Santa Anita will closely monitor attendance and handle over the next six weeks to see if the post time experiment is working or not. Director of Operations John Perrotta is on record as saying if after the six week trial period it is obvious the new start times are not having a positive effect, Santa Anita could go back to more traditional first post times.
Less than Good Magic
Most horseplayers were watching closely as 2017 Eclipse Award champion 2-year-old Good Magic made his seasonal debut in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park last Saturday. He had a good trip and no obvious excuse finishing a well beaten third behind wire-to-wire winner Promises Fulfilled.
Before writing off Good Magic as a Triple Crown candidate, it is important to note the main track at Gulfstream Park last Saturday was extremely cuppy and slow. For proof, here are the final times of the Graded Stakes run on the dirt last Saturday at Gulfstream:
Grade II Davona Dale Stakes – One mile in 1:38.69
Grade III Gulfstream Sprint Stakes – 6-1/2 furlongs in 1:18.32
Grade II Fountain of Youth – 1-1/16 miles in 1:44.17
Making his first start since November and with trainer Chad Brown on record as saying Good Magic was not 100% tight off the layoff prior to the race, Good Magic may have simply had track conditions working against him that day. Expect a much improved race next time.
Top play this week: Santa Anita, Thursday, Race 4 – Super Duper Cooper (post 4). Gelding is on an improving pattern and should get nice stalking trip on the stretchout.