1938: Stagehand's Santa Anita Sweep
If you are a longtime racing fan, you know that the Santa Anita Handicap has long been one of the premier events of the year for older horses. Many a Thoroughbred four years or older has taken Big 'Cap glory en route to a divisional honor, whether it be an Eclipse or California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Award.
But once upon a time, the Big 'Cap was actually open to three-year-olds. From its inception in 1935 through the 1968 renewal, horses of that age were welcome to try their hand (or should we say, hoof) at Santa Anita's marquee race.
Through those thirty-five runnings, one horse managed to emerge as a Big 'Cap winner at three, and he did so while pulling off a huge upset against the most popular horse around.
That horse was called Stagehand.
But the tale goes back a couple of weeks before the Big 'Cap. Specifically, the date was February 22, 1938. The Santa Anita Derby was contested on that Tuesday afternoon, and Stagehand met up with fourteen fellow horses in the mile and an eighth stake. Having won three races in a row at the Santa Anita meet, Stagehand received a good amount of the action with odds of about 11-2,but was the fourth choice overall behind the coupled entry of Sun Egret and Legal Light, Sir Raleigh, and Tiger.
The post draw saw the Sickle progeny stationed towards the outside in number thirteen. He and jockey Jack Westrope found themselves well off the pace to Sun Egret during the first three-quarters of a mile, but the last part of the race was a different story altogether. As turf writer Oscar Otis noted in the February 23 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Stagehand "passed horse after horse in the stretch, won going away." After a time of 1:50 2/5, Stagehand became the
To win the Santa Anita Derby was obviously a big deal, but Stagehand was pointed to something even bigger less than a fortnight later.
The race everyone wanted to win during the winter was the Santa Anita Handicap. After boasting a $100,000 purse for its first running in 1935, the race became affectionately known as the Hundred Grander, and an abundance of horses and jockeys arrived on track March 5 in search of victory.
The undisputed favorite for the 1938 renewal was Seabiscuit, and his fans had waited a long year for the occasion. Favored to win the Big 'Cap in 1937, the Biscuit got nosed out at the wire by Rosemont, disappointing everyone who came to the track to see the popular underdog add the mile and one-quarter event to his growing resume. With the great horse back for another shot at the Hundred Grander, more than 50,000 fans journeyed to Santa Anita on March 5 with the hope that their hero would be in the winners' circle this time around.
As expected, Seabiscuit took in the most money in the win pool, his final odds being a shade under 2-1. But Stagehand was in no way being overlooked, for he closed at around 7-2 in the betting as part of a coupled entry with Sceneshifter, which made them the second choice overall in a field of eighteen.
The post position draw ended up being a complete reversal from the Santa Anita Derby for Stagehand, who now had Nick Wall in the irons (Westrope piloted Sceneshifter). He was assigned the third hole for the Hundred-Grander, while Seabiscuit took up slot number twelve. A large difference in weight existed between them, too. Stagehand carried 100 pounds while Seabiscuit was assigned 130. Would that make a difference come the finish?
Interestingly, another horse who would play a major part in Seabiscuit's story was in the lineup that day, though he never became a factor. He was known as Ligaroti, and he and Seabiscuit would have a showdown at Del Mar later that summer.
As for the early part of the Big 'Cap, the field quickly became strung out just after the start while some of the contestants encountered a wide trip. Whichcee grabbed the lead as both Seabiscuit and Stagehand were just a few lengths in arrears as they went around Santa Anita's main track. Aneroid took over first place after Whichcee, and he was followed by Seabiscuit to the immense delight of thousands. But Stagehand was not far behind as the fourth annual Big 'Cap moved into the final stretch.Thousands in the grandstand and infield watched as Seabiscuit led the field towards the wire. An abundance of excitement and nerves no doubt swarmed Santa Anita as everyone wondered if the Biscuit would get that elusive win. He had one of the best riders aboard in George "The Iceman" Woolf, and he had no one in front of him as he cleared the eighth pole. But one horse was ready to fight for the trophy: Stagehand.
Woolf and Wall were all out in the saddle, each of them knowing the finish would be close. Seabiscuit was along the rail with Stagehand right by him. The leader kept his rival in second, but Stagehand continued to dog the post-time and crowd favorite. Then, in the final jumps, Stagehand inched closer until he was even with Seabiscuit. Their heads bobbed as they approached and then reached the wire together. Just as they did one year earlier, Seabiscuit's supporters had to wait to see if the photo would rule in favor of their horse.
To their disappointment and dismay, Seabiscuit again got caught by a nose, only the opponent was not Rosemont. Stagehand and Wall timed the finish just right, and that precise calculation netted them the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap. Wall recognized the strength of his mount, who fought gallantly for the win. "That Stagehand is the powerfullest horse I ever rode," he said afterwards.
With a powerful finish, Stagehand stopped the timer in 2:01 3/5, which was at the time the fastest Santa Anita Handicap on record. He also gave trainer Earl Sande what turned out to be his first and only win in the Hundred Grander. Wall would collect one more renewal three years later with Bay View.
Following those two big wins, Stagehand was pointed to the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, he never got to show what he could do in the Triple Crown opener, for he was scratched prior to the event. He would return to the races, however, winning more stakes plus Champion Three-Year-Old Male honors before retiring.
But before reaching the top of the division, Stagehand made history on that Saturday afternoon in 1938 when he became the first horse to sweep the Santa Anita Derby and Handicap. A truly amazing achievement, the double made him one of the top horses of the meeting, but what no one in the stands on Big 'Cap Day 1938 knew was that they saw something never to be duplicated again.
As the 1930s made way for the 40s, no other three-year-old joined the list of Big 'Cap winners. That trend continued throughout the 50s and 60s before a rule change in 1969 made the race strictly for older horses. But that alteration had another effect, and it directly impacted Stagehand. Now that three-year-olds could no longer be entered in the Big 'Cap, his impressive accomplishment grew even larger in stature now that it was no longer attainable. That has only increased as California racing is well into the twenty-first century.
Granted, several horses have since won the Santa Anita Derby and later the Big 'Cap, with Affirmed, Free House, General Challenge, Hill Rise and Lucky Debonair part of that group. All of them rightly deserve recognition for capturing both races, but Stagehand's double just exudes a different aura given that he won both of them during the same season.
Now, some eight decades after seizing those grand events back-to-back, Stagehand's name sits firmly in California racing's storied timeline thanks to his work at the 1938 meeting.
He won multiple races at Santa Anita that winter, but the Derby and Big 'Cap transformed Stagehand into a legend.
"passed horse after horse..." Otis, Oscar. "Stagehand's Stretch Run Real Classic." Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1938.
"That Stagehand is the..." Finch, Frank. "Jockey Wall Sings Praises of Stagehand." Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1938.
Stagehand scratched from Derby. Dyer, Braven. "The Sports Parade: Three Wise Men of the Turf Send Word From Louisville That Fighting Fox and Dauber Are Horses to Beat Today." Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1938.