It is useless to rail against the dwindling of the Santa Anita Handicap in stature. I've tried, and nothing's changed. Not only has its importance been overshadowed by the $10 million Dubai World Cup on one side of the calendar, it now has been betrayed on the other by its own parent -- The Stronach Group -- which saw fit to upstage its West Coast treasure with that behemoth of a Pegasus World Cup.
The direct impact for its 80th running on Saturday is a hunkered-down Handicap, with a purse ratcheted back to $750,000 and a field that years from now might end up looking pretty good. Or not.
Shaman Ghost is certainly the real thing, and good for Frank Stronach for trying to win his own race once again. Midnight Storm was a superior turf miler until the end of the California drought made him a world-class main-track mudder. And how can you run a mile and a quarter for all that scratch without those tough old campaigners Imperative and Hard Aces?
There is not much Santa Anita management can do these days to tilt the deck in favor of the Handicap. But throwing money at the race won't help in the face of eight-figure events. If you can't get California Chrome to run in California's most famous horse race at ages 4 and 5, then what's the use? And no one can blame Juddmonte for seeking the Dubai World Cup with Arrogate after running for purses of $6 million and $12 million in his last two starts.
Like any faded institution, though, the Santa Anita Handicap will benefit for a while longer from the lingering aroma of its fabled past. Do anything 79 times at this level, and you're bound to come up with some true jewels.
Fifty years ago, the 1967 Santa Anita Handicap was worth $118,800 and marked the third act in the emerging melodrama starring the 8-year-old Native Diver and the upstart Pretense, who was half the old man's age. Pretense got 14 pounds in the San Pasqual and beat The Diver by four lengths. He got seven pounds in the San Antonio and beat Native Diver by 5 1/4 lengths.
With the same seven-pound spread in the Santa Anita Handicap, Pretense dogged Native Diver from the start and reeled him in to win by three. The major stakes winners O'Hara, Drin, Natashka, Quicken Tree, and Fleet Host were along for the ride.
Forty years ago, the 1977 Santa Anita Handicap, worth $250,000, gathered a robust field of older runners who were as adept on turf as they were on dirt. The featured players were King Pellinore, who earned his 130-pound topweight by winning the rich Champions at Santa Anita the previous fall, along with Ancient Title, Properantes, Kirby Lane, and L'Heureux. Eddie Maple, riding Faliraki at 114 pounds for Robert Sangster, nearly stole the show, but Laffit Pincay and Crystal Water caught them at the line to win by a head.
Thirty years ago, the 1987 Santa Anita Handicap was worth every penny of its $1 million purse. Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was primed, and Charlie Whittingham was cocky. Preakness winner Snow Chief won the Strub at a mile and a quarter and beat Ferdinand in the bargain. Wood Memorial winner Broad Brush had returned to Maryland after his so-so Strub effort and come back to California his old sassy self. Hopeful Word, Bedside Promise, and Nostalgia's Star were there to keep the big boys honest.
Ferdinand's rabbit, Epidaurus, did his job and neutralized Snow Chief, but there was nothing anyone could do about Angel Cordero and Broad Brush. They pounced on Ferdinand and Bill Shoemaker deep in the stretch, fought like their lives were at stake, and won by a the slimmest nose this side of a dead heat. The crowd of 67,440 went home limp.
Twenty years ago, the 1997 Santa Anita Handicap, still worth a million dollars, attracted 11 runners from a variety of stables. As it turned out, they could have run the race around the Richard Mandella shed row and saved time.
Siphon, the winner of the 1996 Hollywood Gold Cup, defeated stablemates Sandpit and Gentlemen to give their trainer an unprecedented 1-2-3 sweep. Whittingham had gone 1-2 a couple of times and felt pretty good about it. So had Tom Smith. But 1-2-3? Ridiculous.
Mandella has won the Santa Anita Handicap three times. He missed a fourth by a nose with Best Pal in 1995 and was robbed of a fifth when Game On Dude interfered with Setsuko in 2011. With Shaman Ghost shipping from Florida and Midnight Storm unproven at the distance, Mandella figured this year's Handicap was worth a shot with Ellen and Peter Johnson's Twentytwentyvision.
"I looked him right in the eye, and he said, 'Let's try,' " Mandella said Wednesday.
The 6-year-old son of Pollard's Vision has been a grass horse who ran well enough to finish third in two stakes rained off the turf. At the distance, his best race was a close third in the John Henry Turf Championship last fall.
"He's always had some problems with the starting gate," Mandella noted. "But going a mile and a quarter, that might not matter as much. It's not the deepest Handicap field we've seen, and I know the distance suits him."