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Einstein earns historic victory in Santa Anita Handicap

Helen Pitts-Blasi is first female trainer to win the Big 'Cap

March 08, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Like the floor surrounding a giant Christmas tree, the Santa Anita Handicap had something for everybody Saturday.

There was history made.

The winning horse, a brainy Brazilian-bred named Einstein, gave the 72nd running of the race its first winning female trainer. Helen Pitts-Blasi, at 34 a relative newcomer, brought her 7-year-old turf specialist from the East because she liked Santa Anita's synthetic surface.

"I wanted to see if he could become one of the first to win graded stakes races on three surfaces (grass, dirt and synthetics)," she said.

And so he did, finishing in front by a length with a strong stretch drive under jockey Julien Leparoux.

"Julien couldn't have ridden him better," Pitts-Blasi said.

There was coincidence.

On the same synthetic surface that never seemed to feel quite right for the two-time horse of the year, Curlin, when he made his quest last fall to win the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita and failed, Pitts-Blasi's second-best horse won nicely.

Her best horse had been Curlin, whom she had nursed to health and trained to the day he broke his maiden early in 2007 at Gulfstream Park. When he won by more than 12 lengths that day, the wealthy suitors came calling and Curlin was soon owned in the majority by Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Winery.

More coincidence.

Back in February of '07, Pitts-Blasi was somewhat more willing to open her stable to the Jackson bid because Jackson's trainer, Steve Asmussen, is assisted by Scott Blasi, whose brother, Greg, is Helen's husband.

And more coincidence.

The owners of Einstein are lawyers Bill Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr. of Lexington and Midnight Cry Stables, who sold the majority of Curlin to Jackson and are currently involved in a court case over how much their portion of Curlin is worth.

That case is related to their net worth, which is relevant because they face charges of withholding portions of a legal settlement they got for clients in a suit over the diet pill Fen Phen.

Einstein's win eased their problems about 60% worth of the $1-million Big 'Cap purse Saturday.

There was the birth of a new star, with several story lines to enhance his resume.

He was named Einstein because they go by the alphabet in Brazil, and when it was his turn, they had just gotten to the E's. His breeders had already identified a certain equine intelligence, and so Einstein he became.

"Sometimes, I think he is smarter than I am," Pitts-Blasi said, adding that the only problem she had with him during their 10-day stay at Santa Anita was Einstein's tendency to stop and stare at the mountains.

"He's like a human," she said, pointing to her horse's own theory of relativity. "If he wants a peppermint, he just nickers."

There was commerce.

The total amount bet for the day at Santa Anita was $4,593,620. At all sites, it was $19,721,948. The on-track attendance was 31,496.

None of these numbers were records, nor were any expected in an economy that is keeping people at home with their hands on their wallets. The best crowd ever for a Big 'Cap day at Santa Anita was 85,527 in 1985, that from an era of horse racing that may never return.

The day of commerce was noteworthy, however, because the parent company of Santa Anita, Magna Entertainment, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization last week.

Days such as Saturday continue to make Santa Anita profitable, but not enough to carry the burden of its corporation's debt.

There was the hint of future commerce.

Presenting the Big 'Cap trophy to Einstein's people in the winner's circle was a high-ranking official of San Manuel Indian Casino, which is a major sponsor of Santa Anita. Ponder that connection.

There was also commerce for Joe Torre's buddy, Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel.

Frankel lined his pockets nicely with purses from his victory in the $300,000 Oaks with Stardom Bound, a second in the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile with Ventura and another second in the Big 'Cap with Champs Elysees.

There was also tragedy.

Early in the Big 'Cap, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer's lightly raced 4-year-old, Blue Exit, a French horse who had a first and a second in two recent races on the Santa Anita synthetics, broke down and had to be euthanized. The death marked the first in racing at Santa Anita since early January.

But eventually, as there always is in horse racing, there was talk of the future and a quest for the upbeat.

Pitts-Blasi said she would now look more closely at races on this side of the country, such as the Pacific Classic at Del Mar and the Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Santa Anita.

As she talked, they delivered winner's circle flowers to her news conference and toasted her with champagne.

Racing had lived another day of abundance. It had also grimaced over a lost horse and a fading stature. The gifts come and go.


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