1961: A Second Sunset in Three Years

From the time it was first run during Hollywood Park's inagurual season in 1938 to its last rendition in 2013, the Sunset Handicap served as a showcase for Thoroughbreds who could run at longer distances.

For the majority of the race's history, the Sunset was contested at the marathon route of a mile and one-half, though many versions of it came at a mile and five-eighths. In any event, winning the Sunset Handicap was a welcome addition to any Thoroughbred's career given the longevity of the race both in terms of distance and its position as a staple of Hollywood Park's annual spring/summer meet.

Plenty of champions rose to the occasion in the Sunset Handicap, too. Kayak II did so in 1940, just months after finishing second to Seabiscuit in the Santa Anita Handicap. Hill Prince collected victory ten years later en route to his Horse of the Year title. Swaps capped off his legendary 1956 Hollywood Park meeting with a new track and world record in the Sunset. Fort Marcy followed in 1968, the Sunset being part of his second of four straight Champion Male Turf Horse honors. And Cougar II, the Champion Male Turf Horse of 1972, showed off his distance prowess with a victory in the 1973 Sunset.

With legendary Thoroughbreds adding their names to the list of winners, the Sunset's status in Thoroughbred racing lore grew throughout the decades. But only one horse was able to pull off the feat of winning the race multiple times.

You might be asking now who did it. Well, the answer to that question is...Whodunit.

And what's more, he did so in the days when the Sunset was contested at a mile and five-eighths.

Trained by William C. Whitney and campaigned by Mrs. Jan Burke, Whodunit was was already well acquainted with Hollywood Park by the time he reached the starting gate in the 1959 Sunset. In the couple of months leading up to the race, he had taken an allowance at a mile and one-sixteenth in late May before finishing eighth and last in the Argonaut Mile less than two weeks later. Whodunit bounced back from that loss with a second in the Cortez Handicap at a mile and one-quarter, but then took seventh in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Though he alternated between finishing in the top two and being off the board, it was clear Whodunit could handle the main surface at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers.

Despite the second place and the win a coupe of races back, Whodunit was not expected to contend for victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Sent off at over 13-1, he would have to do battle with Terrang, who had beaten him a couple of times at the meeting already. But Hillsdale, the Hollywood Gold Cup winner who also had Whodunit on form, was not appearing. And on the flip side, Whodunit had defeated fellow opponents Furyvan and Swaps Kin during the meet.

With Ray York staying aboard his mount, Whodunit was off the pace at one point. But even with no quick pace to work with, the son of Princequillo moved up positions. Sunset Day became Whodunit's day, with the equine getting to the front and taking a surprise victory in front of the Hollywood Park crowd. Along with again showing he could run over the Hollypark main track, Whodunit turned the tables on Terrang as the latter took fifth place.

The 1959 Sunset was a big win for Whodunit, but it would not be the last time he would find himself in that same race.

After missing the 1960 Sunset, Whodunit returned to the race in 1961. Before then, however, he improved by one spot in the Cortez Handicap, getting the victory in late June with jockey Ralph Neves. He tried the Hollywood Gold Cup again in mid-July, too. While he didn't win, Whodunit still managed a better result than he had in 1959 as he took third while not losing by a small margin. That set him up for a return engagement in the Sunset. And unlike in 1959 when he went off at boxcar odds, victory was expected this time.

With a final price of 8-5 and Manuel Ycaza in the irons, Whodunit prepared to navigate Hollywood Park's main course once more. An even slower pace materialized compared to the 1959 Sunset, but Whodunit was never far from the front. Letting the race play out, he stayed in contention around the track before taking over in the stretch. He surprised many back in 1959, but many were not surprised on July 24, 1961.

On closing day of Hollywood Park's spring/summer meet, and now racing under the High Tide Stable banner, Whodunit took his place among the legends of the Sunset Handicap by becoming the first and only two-time champion of the contest. It gave him what has become one of the more unique and forgotten records in California Thoroughbred racing, but it also highlighted how strong Whodunit was.

Back in that era, the Sunset was run at a mile and five-eighths. It would be a few more years before it would get a cutback to a mile and one-half, so that gives Whodunit's two wins even more of a mystique. There was also a brief time when a handful of editions were run at two miles, but no multiple winners were produced during that era. Therefore, Whodunit stands alone.

In Hollywood Park's seventy-five year history, a who's who of Thoroughbreds set a place for themselves in its history. Seabiscuit winning the first Hollywood Gold Cup 1938; Swaps dominating the 1955-1956 spring/summer meet, Native Diver winning three straight Gold Cups from 1965-1967 and becoming the track's all-time leading stakes winner; Quack running the fastest Gold Cup in history in 1972; Flawlessly taking three straight Matriarchs from 1991-1993; and Zenyatta taking three consecutive Vanity Handicaps from 2008-2010. All of their accomplishments are noteworthy and part of the California racing timeline. And that goes for Whodunit and his two Sunset victories, too.

After the summer of 2013, the Sunset vanished as Hollywood Park left the racing landscape. Unless it experiences a revival, no horse will have the opportunity to join the list of winners.

And that means Whodunit's record will only become more unique as the twenty-first century rolls on.

Entry added June 5, 2022. AF