Santa Anita’s Big ‘Cap Boasts a Storied Racing History

Though the days of true handicap racing seem to have gone the way of the Wooly Mammoth, serious props go out to the few tracks that 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 like Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn, Churchill Downs, and especially Santa Anita maintain their dedication to history and continue to offer rich handicap events.

87th Annual Big ‘Cap: A Showcase of Talent at Santa Anita

But Santa Anita once again offers their signature race – the “Big ‘Cap” – this year for the 87th time and a field of seven talented older runners will race the 10 furlongs over the main track 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 1980s and the days of Tex Sutton and the ability to make a cross-country plane trip 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 search 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, weighing 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 growing attractions in the Middle East that are the Saudi Cup and the Dubai World Cup, whose purses have drawn horses from around the globe, let alone America.

Celebrating Champions: A Look Back at Big ‘Cap Winners

Game On Dude

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 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.

Iconic Victories: Santa Anita Handicap Through the Years

Local standout and 2024 Hall of Fame nominee John Sadler and his owners, Hronis Racing, won three runnings of the Big ‘Cap from 2018 through 2020 – Accelerate, Gift Box, and Combatant. The late, great Charlie Whittingham, however, still owns the record in number of Santa Anita Handicap winners with nine (1957, 1967, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1985, 1986, 1990, 1993) and his go-to rider, the late Bill Shoemaker, is still the race’s most successful jockey having ridden 11 winners (1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1966, 1967, 1971, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1985) despite the fact he retired from the saddle 34 years ago and passed away 21 years ago.

Game On Dude still owns the stakes record of 1:58.17 from his last of three victories in 2014.

The Big ‘Cap this year will go as the day’s 8th with a post time of 4:05 p.m. PT under clear skies and cool temperatures.


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