By Margaret Ransom
Though the days of true handicap racing seem to have gone the way of the woolly mammoth, serious props go out to the few tracks who do their best to preserve history and offer big purses for the best older horses willing to carry weight and earn a position among the best in the older male division.
While many are converting to the ranks of stakes conditions and weight-for-age exhibitions, tracks such as Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs, and especially Santa Anita maintain their dedication to history and continue to offer rich handicap events. And once again, Santa Anita offers its signature race – the ‘Big ‘Cap’ – for the 84th time on Saturday. A field of eight talented older runners, including the undefeated Maxfield, will race classic 1 ¼ miles for the winner’s share of the $400,000 purse.
At one time, weight was considered the “great equalizer” in pitting good horses against better horses and settling any debate of who’s best of the older handicap runners. The better horses carried heavy imposts like badges of honor while the outsiders willingly toted less lead in their saddle pads, eyeing an upset and a spot in the history books. Horsemen were also true sportsmen and took pride in the weight their horses carried to victory.
By the late ‘80s and the days of Tex Sutton and cross-country plane trips in a day, however, the concept of a true handicap had lost its luster. Trainers with top stars assigned heavy imposts would just refuse to run and instead searched for other races at other tracks where their horses’ imposts would likely be substantially less and, therefore, give them a better chance at victory.
Too much weight earned a trip to another race in another city and before long, handicaps had five-horse fields with top weights lower than most overnight races. And racing secretaries complied with the trainers’ threats to ship, weighting horses less and less as the years progressed all in their best efforts to keep the superstars at home and the fans coming out to see them.
Yet the Big ’Cap has endured and has maintained its position as a true handicap’s handicap. The purse was elevated to as high as seven figures years ago [though it has dipped in harder economic times] and has successfully competed with the Dubai World Cup, which has a $12 million purse for this year’s race on March 27.
Since its inception in 1935 during the California track’s inaugural season, the Big ‘Cap has collected an impressive list of winners. The legendary Seabiscuit captured the 1940 renewal after coming up short in 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 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 and Shared Belief.
Local standout John Sadler and his owners, Hronis Racing, have won the last three runnings of the Big ‘Cap – Accelerate, Gift Box and Combatant – but do not have a horse in the field this time. Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham still owns the trainer’s record for most Santa Anita Handicap wins with nine (1957, 1967, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1985, 1986, 1990, 1993) and his go-to rider, Bill Shoemaker, has the jockey record with 11 winners (1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1966, 1967, 1971, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1985).
Game On Dude has stakes record of 1:58.17 from the last of three victories in 2014. The Big ‘Cap goes off as the 10th race with a post time of 5 p.m. PT.
In post-position order, with jockeys, trainers and odds:
1. Independence Hall (Flavien Prat, Michael McCarthy) 4-1
Constitution—Kalahari Cat, by Cape Town
2. Maxfield (Florent Geroux, Brendan Walsh) 8-5
Street Sense—Velvety, by Bernardini
3. Kiss Today Goodbye (Mike Smith, Eric Kruljac) 8-1
Cairo Prince—Savvy Hester, by Heatseeker
4. Coastal Defense (John Velazquez, Dale Romans) 15-1
Curlin—Trensa, by Giant’s Causeway
5. Express Train (Juan Hernandez, John Shirreffs) 3-1
Union Rags—I’m a Flake, by Mineshaft
6. Idol (Joel Rosario, Richard Baltas) 6-1
Curlin—Marion Ravenwood, by A.P. Indy
7. Tizamagician (Drayden Van Dyke, Richard Mandella) 12-1
Tiznow—Magic Union, by Dixie Union
8. King Guillermo (Abel Cedillo, Juan Avila) 12-1
Uncle Mo—Slow Sand, by Dixieland Band
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com, where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters: Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.
After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager.
She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several racehorse retirement organizations, including CARMA.
In 2016, Margaret was the recipient of the prestigious Stanley Bergstein Writing Award, sponsored by Team Valor, and was an Eclipse Award honorable mention for her story, “The Shocking Untold Story of Maria Borell,” which appeared on USRacing.com. The article and subsequent stories helped save 43 abandoned and neglected Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and also helped create a new animal welfare law known as the “Borell Law.”
Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull and Arrogate as her favorite horses of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, two Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.