The Big ‘Cap’s Big Problem

One of the most prestigious races in the country will be run this weekend. A list of the race’s winners over the years boasts Hall of Famers, champions, and some of the best horses of their respective eras, not to mention legendary owners, trainers, and jockeys.

Yes, the Santa Anita Handicap will be run Saturday in Arcadia. However, the Big ‘Cap isn’t quite so big anymore, in stature, prominence, or in the quality of horses it attracts.

The reasons for this abound, and perhaps the most reasonable one is the proximity of the race to the Dubai World Cup. Why run for the winner’s share of a $600,000 pot when you can run for the biggest piece of a $10 million pie? With the three-week gap between the two races, trainers of yesteryear may have openly tried to run in both. As we all know, though, they don’t make many horses physically capable of that anymore.

Gun Runner has already started his second career, covering mares at $70,000 a pop. West Coast, the best of a forgettable lot of 3-year-olds in 2017 but a 4-year-old that at least made Gun Runner work in the Pegasus, has his eye on Dubai, as does last year’s champion older dirt mare, Forever Unbridled. The winners of the 2017 Triple Crown races are still working their way back, as is champion 3-year-old filly Abel Tasman.

This paints a horrifyingly bleak picture of the older horse divisions, and the field for the 2018 Santa Anita Handicap reflects it. Past performances show a field of eight that could be whittled down to seven if Giant Expectations opts to instead run in the Roy H-less Grade 1 Triple Bend. This octet has combined for a total of three Grade 1 wins. Hoppertunity has won a pair, while Mubtaahij won a similarly watered-down renewal of the Awesome Again last fall.

There are plenty of nice horses in this race. Three-time Grade 2 winner Accelerate, Pegasus World Cup fourth-place finisher Fear the Cowboy, and millionaire Giant Expectations are thoroughbreds any owner or trainer would love to have. They’re honest, hard-trying equines…but, to this point, they’re not Grade 1 horses, and of the two in the field that have achieved that status, one has won once in his last seven starts (Hoppertunity), and the other (Mubtaahij) has one win since the spring of 2015.

In my estimation, the Big ‘Cap isn’t even the main event of Big ‘Cap Day. That honor falls to the San Felipe Stakes, a prep for the Santa Anita Derby that has drawn some of the top 3-year-olds in the country. Bolt d’Oro makes his seasonal debut there, and he’ll face the undefeated McKinzie, impressive San Vicente winner Kanthaka, and wire-to-wire Robert Lewis victor Lombo, among others, with a total of 85 Kentucky Derby points on the line. Now THAT is a race with some pizzazz to it, one where you could talk to a novice horse racing fan and explain why it’s important without sounding like a marketing executive obviously stretching the bounds of rationality and logic.

The Santa Anita Handicap? This year’s renewal is a step down from even the most recent runnings, which were far from star-studded but did have some appealing aspects to them. 2017 had Shaman Ghost, who put together a nice string of performances before being sidelined last summer with ailments that ultimately led to his retirement. Melatonin at least franked the form he showed in his 2016 upset when he added the Grade 1 Gold Cup, and Shared Belief dazzled us with one of his finest efforts when taking the 2015 version. Before that, Game On Dude won three Big ‘Caps in four years, including the 2014 running over Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man and reigning champion 3-year-old Will Take Charge (it’s worth noting that this was the final year where Meydan ran the Dubai World Cup on a synthetic surface).

Something has to be done to restore this great race’s glory. It cannot succeed going up against the Dubai World Cup in a world where the best horses MAY run six or seven times a year for the biggest purses available. Here’s how I’d do it.

1) Move the race to the second Saturday in May, and restore its purse to $1 million.

The current timing of the Santa Anita Handicap clearly does not work. It’s not attracting the best horses in the country, as they’re busy preparing for excursions to a desert halfway across the world. Before we do anything else, we need to move it, and May is the best spot.

If nothing else, this gives the Big ‘Cap a weekend all to itself between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. General interest in racing is at its peak at this point, and this also at least opens the door for horses returning from Dubai to consider running. Everything would need to go perfectly, but it’s at least a consideration, especially given further suggestions I have.

Also, before we go further, let’s treat the Big ‘Cap like it matters and give it the $1 million purse it deserves. If this means axing the Pimlico Special (normally run the next week on Preakness weekend in Maryland) to balance the budget and get more top-class runners in one spot, so be it. It sounds really cold (especially to at least one Maryland racing fan I know that’s probably reading this), but I’d rather kill a Grade 3 than a Grade 1, which is what we’re doing by doing nothing with the Santa Anita Handicap.

2) Move the Gold Cup to closing weekend.

Given the moving of the Big ‘Cap, the Gold Cup at Santa Anita also needs to be rescheduled. It was run on Memorial Day last year, and that’s too quick a turnaround.

If this gets moved to closing weekend, it provides six or seven weeks between the two 10-furlong races. Horses could easily run in both races, and this race provides an even more realistic target for those looking to return from Dubai. One could also attract horses exiting either the Met Mile or Brooklyn on Belmont Day, as that wouldn’t be an unreasonable turnaround for aggressive barns. Furthermore, it represents an ideal spot for a top-class mare to try the boys. It’d be four or five weeks after Santa Anita’s flagship spring-summer race for older distaffers, the Beholder Mile, and that spacing could be ideal.

3) Establish a series culminating in the Pacific Classic, and award bonuses to the most successful horses.

What we’ve done with these two maneuvers is establish a logical, three-race series for California’s top handicap horses. Here, we have three races, each six to eight weeks apart, all at the classic distance of a mile and a quarter. It’s not anywhere close to as grueling as the Triple Crown, nor will it have the pop culture relevance if a horse wins the first two legs. However, there are ways to make this appeal to the masses in such a way that it could be a novel idea.

The simplest bonus would go to the connections of any horse that sweeps the series. My initial idea is $500,000, to be paid for by The Stronach Group (which owns Santa Anita) and Del Mar (which puts on the third leg). Furthermore, since Stronach is involved, let’s also throw in the right to buy a slot in the starting gate for the Pegasus World Cup at half-price (down from $1 million to $500,000). With the $500,000 cash bonus also in mind, this essentially turns the Pegasus into a freeroll for the owners and whatever breeder acquires the horse’s stallion rights. Money talks, and a free shot at the winner’s share of the Pegasus would be very attractive.

If no horse wins all three legs, we’d go to a scoring system. My proposal would be 10 points to the winners, with six points to the second-place horses, three points to the third-place horses, and one point to everyone else in each field (as a bone to entice barns into running their horses in all three legs, so as to keep the mathematical possibility of a win in the series alive). The winner of the series would be in line for a bonus, with the runners-up each getting smaller bonuses. For the sake of this conversation, let’s put the prizes at $100,000, $25,000, and $10,000. If you’ve got a hard-knocking horse in a year where one thoroughbred doesn’t take multiple legs of the series, two seconds and a third could easily get you some serious money, on top of the purse money your horse wins in those races.

Currently, the Big ‘Cap has little relevance to the national racing scene. It’s the byproduct of a previous era, and it’s my belief that, like they’ve done with several other staples of generations past, The Stronach Group needs to review the facts and do what it can to save a race that deserves so much better.

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