Few races can match the significance of the Santa Anita Handicap, both in terms of its history and its continued role of prominence on the national racing calendar. Known as “The Big ‘Cap” since its inception in 1935, the 1 1/4-mile test of speed and stamina is annually one of the first Grade 1 races in the nation for older horses. The 2012 edition, set for March 3, carries a purse of $750,000 and will feature last year’s winner, Game on Dude, who was finalist for champion older horse in 2011.
The Santa Anita Handicap instantly became one of the most important races for older horses in the country when word got out the purse for the inaugural running would be $100,000, a pot of money unheard of in Thoroughbred racing at the time. As a result, the Santa Anita Handicap was called “The Hundred-Grander” by racetrackers and fans.
The 2012 Santa Anita Handicap is expected to draw a large and competitive field of 10 contenders, which includes at least one East Coast invader. However, the focus will be on Game On Dude for trainer Bob Baffert. Game On Dude, who exits a sharp win in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes in his seasonal bow Feb. 5, will attempt to become just the fourth horse to ever win two Santa Anita Handicaps. The only previous horses to accomplish the feat were John Henry (1981-82), Milwaukee Brew (2002-03), and Lava Man (2006-07).
It very might happen. Baffert has indicated Game on Dude is even better this year and is going to take some beating.
Other major contenders expected for the 2012 Santa Anita Handicap are Ultimate Eagle, Setsuko and Ron the Greek. Ultimate Eagle stamped himself as a major contender when routing the field in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes Feb. 4, which was his fifth win in his last six starts and his first try on conventional dirt.
Setsuko won an Allowance race at Santa Anita on Feb. 4 that followed more than five months on the sidelines. Trained by Hall of Fame inductee Richard Mandella, Setsuko was second to Game on Dude in last year’s Santa Anita Handicap.
Ron the Greek is scheduled to ship in from Gulfstream Park in Florida for trainer Bill Mott. The son of Full Mandate, who is searching for his first graded stakes win, exits a good second to Mucho Macho Man in the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 28.
All of the contenders will be trying to break the Santa Anita Handicap record of 1:58.60 set in 1978 by Affirmed, who the previous season won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to become Thoroughbred racing’s last Triple Crown winner.
Jockey Bill Shoemaker and trainer Charlie Whittingham, two of the legendary names in California racing, lead their respective categories in number of wins. Shoemaker won 11 Santa Anita Handicaps between 1954-1985 and Whittingham won eight between 1957-1985.
Charles S. Howard, who is best known as the owner of Seabiscuit, won the Santa Anita Handicap three times to lead all owners. Howard won with Kayak II in 1939, Seabiscuit in 1940 and Noor in 1950.