A year ago, trainer Bob Baffert was accepting handshakes for winning the Santa Anita Handicap with General Challenge.
But only three trainers--Tom Smith, Charlie Whittingham and Richard Mandella--have won consecutive Big 'Caps with different horses, and Baffert was unable to join them Saturday after his horses, Wooden Phone and Tribunal, ran second and third behind Tiznow. Wooden Phone earned $200,000 and Tribunal $120,000, still not a bad payday for their owners.
Baffert led with a stiff upper lip.
"Running second and third behind Tiznow isn't too bad," he said. "I'm happy that they ran well. If Tiznow doesn't show up, I win it again."
Wooden Phone, who had beaten Tiznow in the Strub on Feb. 3, led Saturday's race for almost a mile. After the Strub, Wooden Phone caught a virus and couldn't train for a week.
"For a while there, I didn't even think he'd make the race," Baffert said. "I'm not saying he would have beaten Tiznow if he hadn't missed that time. When Tiznow runs a race like he does today, he's awfully tough."
The track bias, which favored speedsters, was two strikes against Tribunal, who came from far off the pace.
"I was supposed to make one run from the three-eighths pole," said David Flores, who rode Tribunal. "The track wasn't that good for horses that come from way out of it. When I moved on the turn, he made a great run."
Tribunal is a 4-year-old colt that cost his owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, $1.8 million at a yearling auction in 1998. In his ninth start, he finished fourth in the Strub after a slow start.
Mike Cooper, one of the owners of Tiznow, talked about why he likes Jay Robbins as his trainer. Robbins, who trains a small stable, has had only the occasional important horse. In four previous Big 'Caps, his best finish had been a third with Flying Continental in 1990.
"I've been with Jay for 10 or 11 years," Cooper said. "He had a reputation of putting the horse first, and that's what drew me to him. It's not always the winner's circle that is your main consideration. A big part of the rewards from this game is that your horses come back well and are properly cared for. This is what you get from Jay Robbins as a trainer."
The winners of Saturday's three major races were Tiznow, ridden by Chris McCarron; Crafty C.T., with Eddie Delahoussaye; and Road To Slew, with Laffit Pincay. All three riders are in the Racing Hall of Fame.