A talent-filled 11-race card featuring four graded stakes is on tap at Santa Anita Park Saturday, led by the featured 80th running of the Santa Anita Handicap (GI). The 1 ¼-mile feature is worth $750,000 this year and has drawn a strong field of nine older runners.
Since its inception in 1935 during the Southern California track’s inaugural season, the list of Big ‘Cap winners is impressive. The legendary Seabiscuit captured the 1940 renewal after falling just short in his two previous attempts. Round Table, Prove It, Lucky Debonair, Ack Ack, Triple Bend, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Broad Brush, Alysheba, Best Pal, Free House and Shared Belief are just some of the other names to have reached the storied winner’s circle. But perhaps the best known victors are two-time heroes John Henry, Milwaukee Brew and Lava Man, as well as three-time winner Game On Dude.
This year, the field will be led to the gate by Venneri Racing or Little Red Feather’s Midnight Storm, a Grade I winner on the turf who returned to racing over the main track late last year to win to a pair of graded stakes on dirt after a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (GIT). Though considered a grass horse for the most part, Midnight Storm has actually won three dirt races over his 21-race career and two of them came over Santa Anita’s main track. And though he failed to win in his lone try at the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Big ‘Cap, he has looked impressive at just a furlong shorter. His steady stream of triple-digit BRISnet speed figures (six in a row) are the best in here and he’ll no doubt be on the lead from the break, which, without a clear speed rival, could make him a tough rival to run down under jockey Rafael Bejarano.
Woodward Stakes (GI) winner Shaman Ghost ships in off a runner-up finish to Arrogate in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (GI) last out and a top career effort, where he earned a whopping 112 BRISnet speed figure while trying to catch his top rival in the lane. The Jimmy Jerkens trainee doesn’t race a ton, but when he does he’s the picture of consistency and has only finished off the board four times in 14 career starts. Owned by Frank Stronach, who also owns Santa Anita, this “house horse” has looked exceptional training since arriving earlier in the week and though he makes his first start here, he has won at the distance and is already a Grade I winner. He’s a closer with a confirmed speedster set to be on the lead, and if it backs up to him, he’s definitely talented and classy enough to have his picture taken.
Isotherm is another one returning to the dirt off a pretty solid turf career that saw him win or place in six of ten starts on the lawn. The George Weaver-trained son of Lonhro captured the San Marcos Stakes (GIIT), which was his first victory in more than a year, and is well-traveled, having started at seven separate tracks over his 12-race career. If he can duplicate his last win here on the dirt from his preferred early position mid-pack, he’s a dangerous candidate for the upset under jockey Flavien Prat.
Hard Aces has danced just about every dance since finishing second to Melatonin in this race a year ago with a mixed bag of results and one win in the Cougar II Stakes (GIII) at Del Mar last summer at 1 ½ miles. The 7-year-old son of Hard Spun gets a positive rider switch to Victor Espinoza, which means he’ll be closer to the pace and, if he runs his best, he’s a lock for the exotics.
It’s hard to count out any runner from Hall of Famer Richard Mandella’s barn, especially in this race, which he’s won three times already, but Twentytwentyvision looks like a pretty good turf horse who may have his work cut out for him in a field like this. Having big-money rider Mike Smith aboard does help, however.
Follow Me Crev and Gangster are good allowance/optional claiming horses who may be better suited to softer company.
Post time for the Big ‘Cap has been set at 4:30 p.m. PT.