Many horseplayers say that gray horses are bad luck, but Victoria Calantoni has never paid attention to that superstition.
"I've always loved grays," Calantoni said, giving one of the reasons why she bought Sir Beaufort as a weanling in 1987. Another reason was that she had to pay only $7,000 for a son of Pleasant Colony, the Kentucky Derby winner in 1981. Many Pleasant Colony offspring don't even make it to market, because Thomas Mellon Evans races most of the progeny.
"Sir Beaufort was a beautifully built horse," said Calantoni, a Beverly Hills native who avidly studies equine conformation. "He was a big horse with strong hind quarters, and on top he was perfect."
Perfect until assistant starters tried to load him into the gate before a race. "Balked (in the) gate" became a familiar comment about Sir Beaufort's losing races in the Daily Racing Form.
For Saturday's $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, Sir Beaufort outdid himself at the gate by being loaded twice, but this time it wasn't his fault. Bertrando, one of the favorites, delayed the start because of a faulty bridle.
After the gates opened, the 56th Big 'Cap belonged to one of the oldest horses and the oldest trainer. The 6-year-old Sir Beaufort became 79-year-old Charlie Whittingham's ninth winner in the stake, beating 59-1 Star Recruit by a nose in a photo finish.
"Who won?" Star Recruit's jockey, Laffit Pincay, shouted to Pat Valenzuela, Sir Beaufort's rider, as they pulled up their horses past the wire.
"I don't know," Valenzuela said.
Gary Stevens, astride 16-1 Major Impact, who finished only a head behind Star Recruit, came within earshot.
"You won," Stevens said, motioning toward Valenzuela.
None of Whittingham's first seven Big 'Cap winners paid as much as $10. His last two sneaked up on most bettors. Ruhlmann returned $47.80 in 1990 and Sir Beaufort paid $25.60 Saturday before an on-track crowd of 40,988.
The 80-degree heat brought Whittingham to the paddock without his sport coat, and the Hall of Fame trainer won this Big 'Cap without even rolling up his sleeves.
Whittingham credited Valenzuela. "Pat and I have been very lucky over the years," he said. "He's got the knack of usually being in the right place at the right time with a horse."
The best Whittingham-Valenzuela parlay came with Sunday Silence, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1989.
Chris McCarron rode Sir Beaufort most of last year and was aboard this year for a victory in the San Carlos Handicap and a second, behind Marquetry, in the San Antonio Handicap three weeks ago.
With McCarron set to ride Bertrando on Saturday, Whittingham hired Valenzuela.
"All Charlie told me was to ride this horse with confidence," Valenzuela said. "When you ride any of Charlie's horses, you have to have confidence."
The horses favored most did the least in this Big 'Cap. Best Pal, the 7-5 favorite who was trying to join John Henry as the only two-time winner of the race, threw a shoe, probably early in the race, fell far behind a moderate early pace and wound up fifth, beaten by 5 1/2 lengths. Jovial, sent off at 7-2, was a distant eighth among 11 horses after a half-mile. He surged on the far turn, but was six wide heading into the stretch and finished fourth. Marquetry, Bertrando's stablemate who had beaten Sir Beaufort by a head in the San Antonio, was sixth.
Sir Beaufort, carrying 119 pounds, two more than Star Recruit and five fewer than top-weighted Best Pal, ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:00 2/5 and earned $550,000. His overall record is 10 victories, 10 seconds and four thirds in 31 starts, with earnings of $1.1 million.
Sir Beaufort raced in third place, behind Bertrando and Star Recruit, for the first half-mile. He was never more than two lengths from the lead, and Valenzuela was able to angle him off the rail at the quarter pole.
"I thought Marquetry was going to box me in, but he stopped and that gave me room," Valenzuela said. "At the sixteenth pole, I thought we were going to draw away. But then he started waiting for horses. When Star Recruit came back at us, I just tapped him with the whip to keep him going."
The trainers of the first three finishers, Whittingham, Jerry Fanning with Star Recruit and Willard Proctor with Major Impact, total 216 years in age. Proctor is 77 and Fanning, 60, is the kid in the group. Pincay, 46, barely missed winning his sixth Big 'Cap with Star Recruit.
"My horse was really trying to win in the last part," Pincay said. "He felt like he responded to the left-handed whip, but maybe the other horse was waiting on him. I just wish my horse would have had a longer nose, that's all."
Calantoni and her husband, Sam, who is in the construction business, live in Easton, Md., and have a 115-acre farm in the Harrisburg, Pa., area. Before Sir Beaufort came along, the richest race the Calantonis had won was worth $35,000.
"We couldn't get a bridle on him," Rodney Rash, who used to be Whittingham's chief assistant, said of Sir Beaufort's arrival in California. "I don't think we ever had a horse that tough. We got him to like peppermints, and when he'd lower his head to have some, we'd slip the bridle on him."