Ron The Greek, ridden by Jose Lescano, was on his fourth trainer and his ninth… (Benoit Photo / Associated…)
Apparently, it takes a village for a lot of things.
Case in point: the 75th running of the Santa Anita Handicap, won by Ron The Greek on Saturday.
This 5-year-old, with 16 lifetime starts before going to the gate in Santa Anita's prestigious $750,000 test, was on his fourth trainer and his ninth jockey. He is also jointly owned by three people.
His most recent trainer is veteran Bill Mott, the man who trained Cigar to world fame. Mott trains mostly in the East and in Florida and, in keeping with the team approach, sent assistant trainer Rudolf Basset to handle things when they flew the horse in Wednesday. Riding him was Jose Lezcano, also racing in Florida and the East. Lezcano had been aboard Ron The Greek twice before as his trainers played musical jockeys with his career.
His breeder and one of his three owners is Jack Hammer of Miami Beach. (Yes, that's his real name).The other owners are Adam Wachtel of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and Nils Brous of New York City. None of the three had won a Grade I race.
"I've been close, maybe 20 times," Wachtel said. "I've hit the board, I missed by a neck. Now, getting this one, it has all been worth it."
Ultimate Eagle was supposed to fill the void once Bob Baffert pulled defending champion Game On Dude out of the mix to run in the March 31 Dubai World Cup with its $10-million purse. But Ultimate Eagle got burned up in the early torrid pace set by Gladding and struggled home 10th in a 13-horse field.
It wasn't hard to interpret how Ultimate Eagle's trainer, Mike Pender, felt about the way the race unfolded. Gladding, trained by John Sadler and ridden by Joel Rosario, did the opening quarter in 22.26 seconds and pulled Ultimate Eagle to a 44.55 lead at the half mile.
"They were hellbent on getting the lead — Rosario and Sadler's horse," Pender said. "And when you go 44 and change going a mile and a quarter [total race distance] … like we said, anybody who tries to chase us is going to pay the price, and Gladding was hitting the reverse button at the three-eighth's pole. We kept on going — credit to our horse. You can't go a mile and a quarter in 44 and change. It's literally impossible — unless you are Secretariat."
Gladding finished 11th.
Setsuko, who was second last year after being involved in a scary bumping incident with Game On Dude and Twirling Candy, finished second again. Uh Oh Bango grabbed third and paid $6.60, behind Ron The Greek's $9.20, $4.40 and $3.40 and Setsuko's $3.60 and $2.80.
In fourth was trainer Julio Canani's Holladay Road, coming from 10th place with a quarter-mile to go. Entering the race, there was one ticket still alive in the Pick Six and that was one that had Holladay Road winning. The second-place finish of Mr. Commons, a likely singled pick-six horse for most bettors in the race preceding the Big 'Cap, the $300,000 Grade I Frank E. Kilroe mile, had reduced the field to one big ticket. Sunday's Pick Six carry-over is $430,582.
The first of the three card-closing Grade I races, the $250,000 Las Virgenes, was one by Baffert's Eden's Moon. That gave the red-hot trainer four victories for the day, with Stirred Up taking the second, Mile High Magic the fourth and Hoorayforhollywood the seventh. Baffert also had an entry in the Big 'Cap, but Prayer For Relief finished second to last.
A rare occurrence took place in the third race, which ended up being called a no-contest for bettors.
Muny jumped early and broke through the gate, at almost the exact second the button was pushed to open the gates. Several horses left, while several others stayed with gate assistants holding tight to the reins. Three horses left the gate, ran the race and received the normal owners' pot distribution. All bets just on that race were refunded and exotic bets — Pick 3, Pick 4 and Pick 5 — made all starters eligible as winners to keep tickets alive.
That was just part of what made this Big 'Cap day feel a bit unusual. The dominating victory by Ron The Greek, a short-odds horse but one not on many people's radar, contributed to that.
But one of the owners, Wachtel, saw several omens.
"Years ago, we had three horses running and I drove over to Aqueduct to be there when they ran," he said. "I got there and the parking lot was empty. The races were at Belmont Park, so I drove like crazy, made it and all three finished first, although one was disqualified.
"Then, the other night, I was watching TV with my 8-year-old and on comes the movie 'Seabiscuit,' the part where Tobey Maguire is convincing somebody they have to run in the Big 'Cap. I told my 8-year-old that's where I was going.
"Then I drove to the airport to fly here, got to LaGuardia, tried to find my gate and realized my flight was from Kennedy, not LaGuardia. I had 20 minutes to make it, and I did."
The crowd, on a near-perfect sunny day, was 26,147, up from last year's all-time low of 23,304. The on-track handle on the Big 'Cap alone was $2,826,786, up from last year's $2,228,669.
The Big 'Cap village used to be much bigger than that in all regards, but at least the line on the chart is heading upward.