Seabiscuit (above) won the 1940 edition of the Santa Anita Handicap, a race that started spectacularly in 1935 and is one of U.S. racing's most important races. (Photo courtesy of the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation/Wikimedia Commons)
by Edward L. Bowen
Fans who attend the Santa Anita Handicap on March 8, wager on it from off-track locations or using advance-deposit-wagering accounts or watch the nationally televised broadcast on FOX Sports 1 will be tapping into the latest running of one of the unique events in Thoroughbred racing’s history.
Besides its rich purse of $750,000, the race boasts a rich history.
When the Big ’Cap burst upon the scene in 1935, it was the first $100,000 handicap race ever held in the United States. The Belmont Futurity for 2-year-olds had eked beyond $100,000 in winner’s gross purse with its repetitive schedule of eligibility payments, but the only handicap as rich as the heralded new Santa Anita version had been staged across the U.S. border in Mexico.
For comparison, the Kentucky Derby of 1935 was $40,000 added. It paid $39,525 to the winners, $6,000 to the runner-up, $3,000 for third and $1,000 for fourth place.
The Coffroth Handicap in Tijuana had hit the $100,000 mark with its 1926 running and remained at that level through 1929, after which the track closed. The new track at Caliente adopted the race as the Agua Caliente Handicap and staged two additional editions at the six-figure purse level.
Ironically, by the time Australia’s great Phar-Lap arrived in 1932 to give the race its greatest distinction, the purse had been cut in half.
PHAR-LAP BEFORE BEING SHIPPED TO AMERICA
Photo by Charles P. S. Boyer/Wikimedia Commons
Historian John Hervey summarized the history of the Coffroth in “Racing in America: 1922-1936” with an uncharacteristically jaunty tone: “With the Coffroth Handicap, eventually raised to an event with $100,000 added, being the first stakes for aged horses of such value ever given anywhere in the world, it continued to carry on until 1929, when the vagaries of Mexican politics, combined with internal difficulties, caused it to pass out …”
In the decade before the advent of the Santa Anita Handicap, the Thoroughbred industry was feeling the effects of the hangover from an age of reform, which had shut down racing in various states.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, the sport of Thoroughbred racing returned to California and tracks were built in New England and Florida. While it might seem contradictory, the coming of the Great Depression spurred more growth because state legislators scrambled for the convenient tax money that pari-mutuel handle generated.
Then, Dr. Charles Strub, Hal Roach, and their associates announced they would stage a $100,000 handicap at their new Santa Anita Park. This glamorous track occupied part of the original Rancho Santa Anita estate of the late Lucky Baldwin and was situated in Arcadia, Calif., about 20 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The San Gabriel Mountains formed an impressive backdrop as viewed from the stands.
IMPRESSIVE BACKDROP AT SANTA ANITA
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
Aided by the startling purse, this setting beckoned top Eastern stables to take the unusual step of shipping their horses across the country by railroad. This was in an era when part of such a cross-country trip could be taken by the owners in the luxury of Pullman cars on The Super Chief, a part of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway system that had been launched in 1926.
The first Santa Anita Handicap was set for Feb. 23, 1935 and there was no reluctance of the fashionable Eastern establishment to go for the money. The field of 20 included nine horses that had earned at least $100,000, which at that time was still a badge of high quality for a racehorse as well as an eye-catching figure for a race.
Looking back, the famed pair of Equipoise and Twenty Grand might be seen as the primary jewels, but they were past their prime, both being seven and having battled many a Turf war.
They represented two branches of the Whitney family: Equipose was owned by C. V. Whitney and Twenty Grand was owned by Mrs. Payne Whitney’s Greentree Stable. Other top outfits represented in the field included the Brookmeade Stable of Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane, who the previous year had won the Kentucky Derby with Cavalcade and became the first female to be leading owner in the U.S. The Brookmeade contender was Good Goods.
William Woodward Sr.’s Belair Stud, which had won a Triple Crown with Gallant Fox in 1930, was represented in the Santa Anita Handicap by Faireno, the winner of the Belmont Stakes in 1932. (Belair was destined to win another Triple Crown in 1935, with Omaha.) Also representing the classic season of years hence was Head Play, who had been second to Brokers Tip in the 1933 Kentucky Derby, in which the first two jockeys famously battled each other through the stretch.
Illustrating the longevity of even fashionably bred horses of the era, the 1935 Santa Anita Handicap included winners of all three Triple Crown races — but it was the Triple Crown of four years earlier!
Twenty Grand had won the 1931 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes and was beaten in the Preakness by Mate, another invader at Santa Anita.
The crowd of about 35,000 addressed identifying a favorite from that melange of past achievement and recent form. Eventually, they were beguiled by the fame of Equipoise, the winner of a series of the top Eastern races over a long career. As preparation for the Santa Anita Handicap, Equipoise had raced twice at the track. He finishing second once and then defeated Twenty Grand, only to be disqualified. Equipoise and stablemate High Glee formed the favored entry at 1.70-to-1.
Second favorite at 5.20-to-1 was W. R. Coe’s Ladysman, a 5-year-old who had been prominent since he was two and had defeated Equipoise in the previous year’s Suburban Handicap.
The weights ranged from 130 on Equipoise down to 103 on horses named Ted Clark and Precursor. The gross value of the race was $125,700. The winner would receive $108,400, described in the Blood-Horse at the time as a “world’s record.”
Amid a field of such distinction and riches, the race turned out to be won by a 7-year-old who had been bought as a steeplechase candidate. Azucar was 12-to-1, but the noted rider George Woolf steered him forward from 11th after Ted Clark had tried to steal the race with a long early lead. Ted Clark still led into the stretch, where Ladysman bore down on him, but Woolf rallied Azucar to the lead and prevailed by two lengths. The winning time of 2:02 1/5 was noteworthy at the time.
1935 SANTA ANITA HANDICAP
Azucar carried 117 pounds as did runner-up Ladysman. Time Supply earned third under 118 pounds, finishing a length farther back.
The champions from the East, Twenty Grand and Equipoise, were unable to make much of a showing and both were unplaced. Equipoise was promptly retired to stud. Twenty Grand, who had proven sterile in an earlier attempt as a stallion, was sent to England with the hope that the change in environment might help his form. He failed in two races there and soon was pensioned at Greentree Stud in Kentucky. In the Santa Anita Handicap, Mate was sixth, Head Play finished 19th, and Faireno was last of 20.
Anita Baldwin, daughter of Lucky Baldwin who previously owned the property on which Santa Anita was built, greeted Azucar in the winner’s circle. Azucar stood still for a wreath being placed over his shoulders, but the general hubbub of photographers prompted him to bolt, dragging his handler down the track.
He eventually broke free from the gallant attendant but was caught and returned to additional cheers.
Writing for espn.com several years ago, Claire Novak noted that in his rush to escape, Azucar broke an NBC radio cable, cutting short the national broadcast. (The famed race caller Clem McCarthy had been sent West to call the race.)
Historian Hervey described the background of the winner as “another exemplification of the romance of racing.”
Azucar had started life with high promise. He was bred by the estate of noted breeder Edward Kennedy and was foaled at Straffan Stud in Ireland in 1928. He was a son of Milesius out of Clarice, by Picton. Joseph E. Widener — whose Hialeah Race Course in Florida was an East Coast equivalent of Santa Anita — bought Azucar as a yearling at Doncaster for $5,250 and placed him in the English division of his own stable.
Racing as the Clarice colt, the youngster won the Gosforth Plate and placed in other stakes at two, whereupon Widener gave him the name Azucar, Spanish for sugar. After a disappointing 3-year-old season on the flat, Azucar was gelded and imported to America, where he was transferred to steeplechase racing.
Over three campaigns, Azucar won the Appleton Memorial, Corinthian, etc., and then in 1934 was sold privately to Fred Alger Jr. of Detroit. Alger, then in his mid-20s, was a grandson of Russell Alger, former secretary of war. Young Alger, who was in the lumber business, used for his silks the University of Michigan’s team colors of maize and blue.
Alger had the ultimate prize in mind, but it was the ultimate prize in steeplechase racing, casting his eyes on England’s Grand National. He was surprised at how much speed Azucar showed, however, so he changed him back to the flat and the gelding won the 1934 Washington Handicap, a major autumn event at Laurel in Maryland.
This encouraged him to make the trip West, where trainer James Rushton gave Azucar three starts before the big event. Azucar won one of the three — the New Year Stakes.
He was sent back East after the Santa Anita Handicap but his form was not of the same standard. However, back in California the following winter, as Hervey recalled, “A marvel of vigor and soundness … he won two valuable stakes, in one of them, the San Felipe Handicap, carrying 115 pounds a mile in 1:36, by far the fastest one mile ever run by so old a Thoroughbred.”
The 8-year-old Azucar tried for a repeat victory in the 1936 Santa Anita Handicap and ran well to be fourth behind Top Row.
Again returned East, he failed to duplicate his best form. By the following year, Alger was looking for a way for the old warrior to go out on a winning note, and he found it in his own back yard.
In July of his 9-year-old season, Azucar won the Michigan Handicap at Detroit Race Course at 1 1/16 miles. That finalized his record at 64 starts, 14 wins and earnings of $163,040.
Epilogue: The phrase “$100,000 added” was gradually matched by numerous other races, but remained the gold standard for many years. The Kentucky Derby purse did not reach that level until 1946. Although purses in multiples of six figures came to be, it was not until 1981 — nearly a half-century after the first running of what became known affectionately as the Big ’Cap — that a seven-figure purse was put up for the first edition of the Arlington Million. That event, too, was won by a gelding who had scuffled up from lower ranks, namely John Henry.
Edward L. Bowen is president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and author of 19 books on Thoroughbred racing
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