1985: Bill Shoemaker-Grand Champion of the Big 'Cap

The 1985 Santa Anita Handicap was special long before it was even run. As part of the season long celebration of Santa Anita's golden anniversary, the buildup to the race was even larger than before. Going back to the very first Big 'Cap in 1935, everyone who competed wanted to win. Jockeys wanted to join the likes of George Woolf, John Longden and Eddie Arcaro as winners, while trainers wished to join legends like Tom Smith, Horatio Luro and Charlie Whittingham on the list.

Without question, the Big 'Cap transformed into a showcase of legends, going back to when it shocked the racing world by offering a $100,000 purse in 1935. That was followed by Seabiscuit's long awaited victory in 1940, Noor defeating Triple Crown champion Citation in 1950, Round Table capping off his undefeated Santa Anita season in 1958 (which saw him win the Strub Series), Ack Ack winning in his perfect 1971 season, Cougar II breaking through to finally win it in 1973, and John Henry becoming the first two-time winner of the race in 1982.

Of course, legends in the Big 'Cap were not limited to just horses. Fans of Woolf, Longden, Arcaro, Red Pollard, Ralph Neves, Don Pierce, and Laffit Pincay, Jr., among others, got to see their favorite jockey win the race at least once if they were on track for the festivities.

When it came to the race known in its early years as the Hundred Grander, however, one man towered over everyone that had won the race. He was also a winner of it himself-many times over.

After Bill Shoemaker began his career in 1949, it did not take him long to win the Big 'Cap. That first win came in 1954 with Rejected, and then he made it back-to-back triumphs with Poona II. From that point on, Shoe showed up in the winners' circle every few years, winning more editions in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Going into 1985, he had long been the recordholder for most wins in the Big 'Cap, taking that status back in 1966 with Lucky Debonair, whom he piloted to Kentucky Derby glory the previous spring.

With Santa Anita's fiftieth season underway, Shoemaker was already the most decorated rider in Big 'Cap history, but he was still riding. And he was still winning. And there is no doubt that he wanted to win this renewal of the marquee event.

The story goes is Shoemaker was not sure which horse to ride for the 1985 Big 'Cap. But the decision reportedly came from his daughter, who told him to ride Lord At War, the winner of the Grade I San Antonio Handicap two weeks earlier. Shoe followed his daughter's advice, teaming up with Lord At War for the big event.

A total of seven horses squared off in the forty-eighth Big 'Cap on March 3, 1985. Joining the cast was Hail Bold King, who was third to Lord At War in the San Antonio; My Habitony, fourth in that same race; Gate Dancer, third in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Classic in November of 1984 and Grade I Charles H. Strub Stakes a month earlier; Greinton, Lord At War's stablemate who was second in the Strub; Life's Magic, a multiple Grade I winner in the East who had the chance to make history as the first female horse to win the Big 'Cap; and Ayman, winner of an allowance at Santa Anita less than a fortnight earlier, but who had won or placed in stakes in Florida and New Jersey beforehand.

As Ayman entered the starting gate, the last horse to do so, the voices of thousands could be heard from around the track. Anticipation had been building for weeks, and now one of the most significant events in racing history was ready to begin.

Track announcer Trevor Denman announced the flag was up to the approving cheers of the fans, and the gates opened for the seven horses and their jockeys to begin their quest for victory.

Ayman, who began from the far outside post, veered out at the start but was quickly guided to the left and moved up to lead. Lord At War stayed close by in second, Shoemaker biding his time. A winner of ten Big 'Caps already, he was in no rush to take the lead or engage in a pace battle. He and Lord At War already had a couple lengths on third place Grienton, who had Hail Bold King on his outside. Life's Magic was racing on the outside in fifth, and moving in sixth and seventh were My Habitony and Gate Dancer, respectively.

The running order stayed unchanged as the field moved around the clubhouse turn and down the backstretch, and Ayman was covering the distance in a quick manner. Shoemaker did not want the leader to get away, so he urged Lord At War with the far turn coming up. Grienton was a clear third over Hail Bold King. Life's Magic, My Habitony and Gate Dancer stayed in their same positions as they entered the second half of the race.

With everyone watching in the grandstand and infield, Ayman continued leading the field. But Shoemaker timed his encouragement to Lord At War perfectly. In a matter of seconds, Lord At War moved swiftly and with aplomb, taking the lead just before completing the turn for the homestretch. Greinton came with a charge on the outside alongside Ayman, who was no longer a win candidate. Meanwhile, Lord At War began increasing the lead after straightening in the stretch, the crowd growing louder with every stride. Gate Dancer and Laffit Pincay, Jr. unleashed a late run, trying to spring the win in dramatic fashion. But no one could catch Lord At War. Shoemaker urged him, went to the whip a couple of times, but was never rattled. He was the living legend, the icon. This was a moment he had experienced countless times, getting his mount in a position to win. No jockey was going to outwit Shoemaker on that day.

Lord At War looked confident in the stretch, moving gracefully. Greinton could not catch him. Neither could Gate Dancer. The best horse won.

About two minutes after he left the starting gate, Lord At War put himself in history as winner of the Big 'Cap. He did so in front of 85,527 fans, the largest crowd in Santa Anita's history. They saw a talented horse win a classic race, but they also saw greatness in the form of Bill Shoemaker.

They saw an excellent tactician watch the race develop. They saw him make a perfect move for the win. They saw him add to his own record in California's most exalted horse race, gaining his eleventh triumph. They saw the living legend, the man who once won seventeen consecutive riding titles at Santa Anita, show why he was one of the best riders who ever lived. They also saw him celebrate another win with Charlie Whittingham, one of the greatest trainers the sport has ever known. Together, they were one of the most potent combinations to ever compete at a racetrack, and it was fitting they teamed up to win that renewal of what was once called the Hundred Grander.

No one but Bill Shoemaker was meant to win the 1985 Santa Anita Handicap. Looking at the race's storied history, several jockeys have won multiple renewals, but none of them have approached the standard set by the sport's most iconic rider.

Simply put, Shoemaker is the Big 'Cap's grand champion.

Entry added January 27, 2020 by AF.