The 1935 Santa Anita Handicap

In the present day, it is known as the biggest race on Santa Anita's schedule. For years, it has returned for another renewal virtually every March, and an older horse adds his name to the vaunted lists of winners.

It has hosted the biggest crowd in Santa Anita's history, and served as the race where an icon went out a champion in his final start. In between, it has created countless memories for those who have won it, and those who have watched its many renewals.

Run at 1 1/4 miles, it has been the site of some of racing's greatest performances. Legends have left their mark on it. Seabiscuit, Noor, Round Table, Ack Ack, Cougar II, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, and Tiznow are just a few of the grand Thoroughbreds to become champion of this event.

For a select few, they have experienced the feeling of winning it more than once, a truly rare and admirable achievement in the more than eight decades this race has existed.

Long before all that rich history came to be, however, the Santa Anita Handicap was just an idea as Thoroughbred racing returned to California during the Great Depression.

The year was 1935. Santa Anita had been open for a couple of months, with racing scheduled to continue for much of the winter. Although the sport's return to Southern California after roughly a quarter-century was big news in itself, track management sought to enhance interest. One idea to do so came to mind.

That idea was to stage a race that featured a $100,000 purse, which no other horse race offered at that time. To put that in perspective, the Kentucky Derby boasted less than $30,000 with its most recent running.

There was serious skepticism that a race with that kind of money would work for the better, but the interest it generated was tremendous, grabbing the attention of owners and trainers.

With such a large payday guaranteed to the winner of this contest, horses were sent to Santa Anita from various parts of the country. Seventy horses were nominated to the race. In total, twenty Thoroughbreds, all three years of age, lined up in the starting gate for the inaugural Santa Anita Handicap on February 23, 1935 (three year old horses were allowed to be entered for several years before only older horses were permitted to compete).

That included Cavalcade, reigning champion of the Kentucky Derby; Equipoise, a multiple stakes winner who also captured multiple Older Horse and Horse of the Year titles; Time Supply, a stakes winner on both the East and West Coasts; Top Row, who would go on to win the 1936 Big 'Cap among several other stakes, and Twenty Grand, winner of the 1931 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

In addition to the interest from owners and trainers, racing fans wanted to see the race known as the Hundred Grander in person. They turned out for it in droves, with more than 34,000 on hand for the historic event. That surpassed the track's very first opening day figure of over 30,000.

When the gates opened to signal the start of the Big 'Cap, the field of twenty began battling for position with the crowd in the grandstand and infield roaring on either side of them. By the time the horses rounded the far turn and made their way for the final portion of the race, they saw a longshot horse named Azucar in contention. Ridden by George "The Iceman" Woolf (who later piloted Seabiscuit in the great horse's legendary match race with War Admiral), Azucar powered down the frontstretch to complete the ten furlongs in 2:02 1/5, racing into history as the first winner of what has grown into an iconic event.

Possessing a background in steeplechase racing, Azucar was not seen as a probable winner of the Big 'Cap, going off at around 12-1 odds. He was met in the winner's circle by Anita Baldwin, daughter of noted Thoroughbred breeder, owner, and businessman Elias J. "Lucky" Baldwin, who presented the trophy.

The first Big 'Cap was a complete success, and easily one of the highlights of the meet. That was only the beginning stages of what has grown into California's most iconic horse race. After Azucar, great horses like Seabiscuit, Noor, Round Table, Ack Ack, Cougar II, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, and John Henry joined the vaunted club of Big 'Cap champions, and the race has proved to be one of Santa Anita's biggest events every year since 1935.

And that history, that rich prestige, all began with an idea and $100,000. Well into the 21st century, the Big 'Cap is worth so much more.

2019-20 Santa Anita Media Guide, pages 75, 77.

Entry added April 19, 2020 by AF.