When I moved to Southern California in 1979, the biggest day of the year on the local horse racing calendar was not the Santa Anita Derby or Hollywood Derby (which at that time was a dirt race in April and a prep for the Kentucky Derby). It was the Santa Anita Handicap, or Big ‘Cap for short. If you watched Los Angeles television, listened to the radio or read the daily newspapers, you could not help but hear the mantra that “if you go to the races one day a year, make it this Sunday for the Big ‘Cap.”
Racing fans, even those once-a-year patrons, heeded the call. Big ‘Cap Day was almost always the No. 1 draw each year in on-track attendance at Santa Anita Park. Kentucky had its Derby, Maryland its Preakness and New York a whole slew of big races. But the one day that grabbed the attention of Southern Californians was the afternoon many of the best older horses in the country raced in the Santa Anita Handicap.
I was spoiled. Affirmed won the 1979 Big ‘Cap – the first one I saw – in 1:58 3/5 for the mile and a quarter en route to his second consecutive Horse of the Year title. Spectacular Bid carried 130 pounds to victory in 1980 during a California tour de force that continued on the East Coast and a Horse of the Year crown. In 1981, Horse of the Year John Henry won the first of two consecutive Santa Anita Handicaps (the second via disqualification of Perrault). The 1983 winner was Bates Motel, who would be voted that year's Eclipse Award winner as outstanding older male.
There were on-track crowds of 66,477 for Affirmed in '79 and 72,752 for the second of John Henry's victories in ‘82, but Santa Anita's biggest day ever came in 1985, when 85,527 crammed into the place to watch Bill Shoemaker ride Lord At War to victory for trainer Charlie Whittingham.
The Breeders' Cup, with its inaugural running in 1984, changed how championships were decided and racing campaigns would be plotted out through the year. There were some outstanding winners in the latter part of the 1980s, including 1988 Horse of the Year Alysheba, but the Big ‘Cap gradually lost some of its luster, and the focus of horse owners and the public shifted to 3-year-olds and the Triple Crown. Since Alysheba, only one Santa Anita Handicap winner would be named a champion: Tiznow, Horse of the Year in 2000, won the following year's Big ‘Cap and was voted an Eclipse Award as champion older male in 2001. (The Wicked North, disqualified from first in the 1994 Big ‘Cap, won an Eclipse Award as champion older male that year).
The race took another major hit in the mid-1990s with the advent of the Dubai World Cup and its oversized purse structure. The best American horses went overseas. It also hurt the quality of the race when the stallion market boomed and many top 3-year-olds went to stud instead of racing at 4.
That's all changed in 2014. The field for the 77th running of the Santa Anita Handicap has all the ingredients to make it one for the ages.
It takes owners like Willis Horton, who brought in Three Chimneys as a partner and decided to race 3-year-old male champion Will Take Charge in America at 4. The same goes for Dean and Patti Reeves, the owners of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man. They considered multiple offers to stand the son of Macho Uno at stud this year at the age of 6, but instead took on Frank Stronach's Adena Springs as a partner and will continue to race him at home another year.
And let's not forget about 7-year-old gelding Game On Dude, the 2011 and '13 Big ‘Cap winner who has captured seven Grade 1 races during his career. He makes this much more than a two-horse race and a rematch of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, won narrowly by Mucho Macho Man over Will Take Charge.
Gone are the days when 70,000 or more attended live racing at Santa Anita Park on Big ‘Cap Day. But this Saturday will be one of those days any racing fan will not want to miss.
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