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Santa Anita Handicap day is full of story lines

The Big 'Cap will be run for the 72nd time on a star-studded card, against the backdrop of this week's bankruptcy filing by track owner Magna Entertainment Corp.

March 07, 2009|BILL DWYRE

There are a million stories in the naked city, and almost that many today at Santa Anita, on Big 'Cap Day.

The legendary Santa Anita Handicap, the 72nd, is the highlight.

The hope is that with Magna Entertainment Corp., the owner of a still-profitable Santa Anita, now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, there will be a 73rd. Life without Santa Anita in Southern California would be like life without newspapers.

But that's another story for another day.

They started running the Big 'Cap not too long after flappers took wing, and it now stands as the first leg of Southern California's own horse racing triple crown. Winning any one of the Big 'Cap, Hollywood Park's Gold Cup or Del Mar's Pacific Classic is a career-maker.

Today's 10th race, a $1-million Grade I over 1 1/4 miles, lost a bit of its glamour when projected favorite Tiago was scratched Wednesday by trainer John Shirreffs. His wife, Dottie, who manages their stable, said, "Tiago backed off his feed a little, and for a race like this, we wouldn't run him if he's not 1,000%."

Tiago is a half-brother of 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, and a star in his own right with a victory in the '07 Santa Anita Derby.

His absence left veteran rider Mike Smith with a hole remaining in his otherwise chock-full resume. He rode Giacomo in the Derby, winning at 60-1, and rode Tiago in the Santa Anita Derby. But he has never won a Big 'Cap.

"Anybody need a rider?" Smith said, adding quickly that his main concern was for the long-term health of Tiago.

The absence of Tiago may have made it even likelier that this will be a huge day for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, who will saddle Zambezi Sun and Champs Elysees in the Big 'Cap, as well as possibly six other horses on today's 11-race card.

Frankel's Big 'Cap entries are both British horses carrying morning line odds of 12-1. Champs Elysees appears slightly better with $1,354,761 in lifetime winnings.

Frankel, who won the Big 'Cap with Milwaukee Brew in '02 and '03, will also enter Moonshine Alice in the $100,000 Honest Lady Stakes, Ventura and Mast Track in the $300,000 Frank Kilroe Grade I mile and Stardom Bound in the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks, also a Grade I race.

Stardom Bound may be perfectly named. The 3-year-old filly has won her last four races, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies; has never been worse than second in six starts, and has won $1,600,600. She will be ridden by Smith, which may ease the loss of Tiago.

Stardom Bound's race could also turn into a Kentucky Derby prep, although those decisions are always dicey when it comes to fillies.

Frankel said, "I don't want to get ahead of myself on that stuff. Me, personally, I'd rather run against the girls" (Kentucky Oaks on the day before the Derby).

Smith said, "If a filly can compete with the boys, I'm in favor of letting her have a shot."

Garrett Gomez, one of the leading riders in the country, may have a lot to say about what happens today.

With Tiago out, the favorite's role in the Big 'Cap will likely fall to Colonel John, whom Gomez rode to a victory in last summer's Travers at Saratoga and to sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

In the Kilroe, Gomez will ride likely favorite Ventura. Ventura, taking on the boys this time, won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint by four lengths in October and has won half of her 16 lifetime starts. Frankel's other entry, Mast Track, with whom he won last summer's Hollywood Gold Cup, will be among the biggest challengers to Ventura. He will be ridden by Julien Leparoux.

In the Big 'Cap, Leparoux will ride for Helen Pitts, on Einstein, who will probably go off as the second favorite and will, because of his lifetime earnings of $1,678,020, most in the field, carry top weight of 121 pounds. Einstein could make Pitts the best story. She is 34, in her fifth season as a trainer and would become the first female trainer to win the Big 'Cap.

She said Einstein "is like a human. He is a real character, lots of personality, loves his life and loves training and being in the stables."

Among Einstein's better moments was last summer's Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, where he finished second on dirt to Curlin. Curlin, of course, is the winningest horse in North America, with more than $10 million. He won the '07 Preakness, finished in the money in all three Triple Crown races and was Horse of the Year the last two years.

When Curlin broke his maiden in '07 by a dazzling 12 lengths, he was trained by Pitts, whose owners, the same Midnight Cry Stable that owns Einstein, soon sold Curlin.

But that's another story for another day.


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