Game On Dude and jockey Chantal Sutherland, right, outrun Setsuko and jockey… (Benoit Photo )
On Big 'Cap Day at Santa Anita on Saturday, the agony outdid the ecstasy.
What was designed to be a feather in the cap of horse racing turned out to be a bobby pin. The usual story lines became an unusual soap opera. On a beautiful early spring day that should have sent people home happy, the parade to the parking lot featured many unhappy faces.
It wasn't just that people lost money on heavily favored Twirling Candy in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap. It was how.
And it wasn't just that the day ended with a controversial decision by stewards in the crown jewel of Southern California racing, giving long-odds Game On Dude a stunning victory. It was that people who came out to see the beauty of the sport got the ugly.
And that was separate from the Big 'Cap controversy.
All was well until the eighth race of the scheduled 11. Then, in a maiden race for 3-year-olds, a horse named Redemsky was pulled up shortly after the start and eventually taken away in the dreaded equine ambulance. He had fractured a right front leg and was euthanized.
In the next race, the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe mile on grass, a 6-year-old Brazilian horse named Lieve went down with a high fracture in his left hind leg. This time, they brought out the dreaded green curtain and Lieve didn't even make it to the ambulance.
Then they ran the Big 'Cap. It was the 74th edition. It had a field that included Twirling Candy, touted to be the best in the country at the moment. And it ended with Game On Dude crossing the finish line first; his connections standing around for more than 10 minutes as an inquiry sign flashed on the scoreboard and replay after replay showed the controversial bumping incident causing the delay, and fans in a general state of unrest.
When the stewards — Tom Ward, Scott Chaney and Kim Sawyer — announced that the finish would stand, trainer Bob Baffert and the horse's connections celebrated in the winners' circle while fans booed loudly. When Baffert headed to the interview room, fans hanging over the tunnel yelled profanities and called him a crook.
"I've been to Belmont," Baffert said later. "This was nothing."
Baffert, with his distinctive white hair, was an easy target. But all he did was accept a victory the stewards validated, his second straight Big 'Cap title. The real center of the storm was jockey Chantal Sutherland, whose ride aboard Game On Dude at the top of the stretch had taken her careening out into Twirling Candy, who then careened out into eventual second-place finisher Setsuko.
The consensus of those milling around the winners' circle after the race was that Game On Dude's number would come down and Setsuko would win. Sutherland, who has struggled to excel at Santa Anita but is annually among the leading riders at Woodbine in Toronto, was the main topic.
She didn't get the ride on Game On Dude until Friday, and she was perhaps the sixth choice. Baffert had tried to entice John Velasquez from the East. Rafael Bejarano and Garrett Gomez opted for other horses in the race, and Baffert said he also considered Pat Valenzuela and Corey Nakatani, but chose Sutherland because she offers a weight advantage.
In the end, the stewards ruled that Sutherland, who hit her horse several times left handed and seemed to steer him out into Twirling Candy, who then went out into Setsuko, was hit first by Twirling Candy, which started the bumping.
Twirling Candy's trainer, John Sadler, characterized his horse during the incident as "being like a pinball."
When Game on Dude's number stayed up, Sutherland became the first female jockey to win the Big 'Cap. Interestingly, the steward's vote to keep the finish was 2-1, with the dissenter the female steward, Sawyer.
Baffert said, "I thought Chantal rode a great race and deserved to win. I think the stewards made the right call."
Richard Mandella, trainer of second-place Setsuko, said, "No comment. It wouldn't be worth writing."
Setsuko's jockey, Victor Espinosa, said, "It's the wrong decision. I don't know why it took so long to make a wrong decision. I think the stewards are blind."
Sandler said of Twirling Candy, "It was just too rough a trip. We'll live to fight another day."
Living is no small deal at Santa Anita this year.
According to Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, Saturday's double fatality brought the thoroughbred death totals since the Dec. 26 start of the Santa Anita meeting to 16 — six in racing and six in training on the new dirt track and four on the grass course. Last year, for the entire meeting, and on the synthetic track that brought much anger and whining from horsemen and resulted in owner Frank Stronach replacing it with traditional dirt, there were a total of 17 deaths — six on the main track, five on the training track and six on the grass.
Arthur said, "The good old days weren't as they [horsemen] remembered."
Racing is in the midst of gambler's anger over reduced purse takeouts, plus smaller fields. Santa Anita recently went down to a four-day race schedule because of lack of horses. Saturday's attendance was 524 fewer than last year's 23,829. In 1985, the height of horse racing popularity, attendance for Big 'Cap day was 85,827.
Zenyatta kept Southern California racing in bloom up for a couple of years. Zenyatta is gone.
Saturday's Big Cap Day watered no flowers.