The 1940 Santa Anita Handicap
In what was at that point the very brief history of the Santa Anita Handicap, the 1940 edition was by far the most anticipated version of the race.The reason came down to one horse: Seabiscuit. In 1937 and 1938, he came tantalizingly close to victory in the race dubbed the "Hundred Grander," but was nosed out both times at the wire. The following year saw him out of the event entirely due to a leg injury that kept him out of action for most of the year.
Those narrow losses were frustrating to Seabiscuit's connections and fans, who wanted to see their hero win the biggest race in California. He had won several major races, with the Hollywood Gold Cup and the match race against War Admiral chief among them. But the Big 'Cap was the race that proved elusive, and all eyes were on the Biscuit in 1940.
The 1938 Horse of the Year returned to action in a handicap sprint in early February, finishing third before following up with a sixth in the San Carlos Handicap just over a week later. Another week went by before the Biscuit rebounded to win the San Antonio Handicap, the major prep for the Big 'Cap.
Another quick turnaround awaited Seabiscuit, for the Big 'Cap came just days later on March 2nd. At that point, the little horse was seven years old, and it is fair to say there were people who wondered whether he would capture the biggest race in the West. But, Seabiscuit was also not one to back down from a challenge. Since coming under the tutelage of trainer "Silent" Tom Smith in 1936, Sebiscuit transformed into a win machine. And when he wasn't winning, he was regularly finishing second or third.Undeniably, the Biscuit proved himself to be a game horse for several seasons.
He was also no stranger to facing large fields, and was set to do that in the Big 'Cap, with a dozen rivals ready to take him on.
Tens of thousands came to Santa Anita for Big 'Cap Day, and they saw Seabiscuit and Red Pollard, the rider who had been in the saddle for so many victories, aboard in the red and white silks for owner Charles S. Howard. Seabiscuit was part of a coupled entry with Kayak II, the race's defending champion. They were made the favorites at post time, but with all due respect to Kayak II (who was a great horse in his own right), the true favorite for many was Seabiscuit.
The horses lined up in the starting gate, staring at the 1 1/4 miles they needed to cover to go to the winners' circle. Seabiscuit had won at the distance before, taking the inaugural Hollywood Gold Cup in 1938. The question was whether he could do it again in his third try at the Big 'Cap.
Soon, it wastime for the sixth race, the main event of the day. The crowd roared as the bell rang and the horses left the gate. Everyone broke fine, and Seabiscuit, who began from post twelve, hustled to the front. Pollard obviously did not want his mount to deal with a wide trip early, and he knew leaving the gate quickly was key.
The plan worked. Seabiscuit was already in second by the time there was one lap to go, trailing Whichcee. He looked determined, ready to conquer the race that narrowly escaped him twice before. He stayed behind Whichcee as the strung out field moved down Santa Anita's backstretch, keeping within close range of the leader. That continued in the far turn, which Whichcee gearing up for the final act of the race.
Several horses were within very close proximity of one another as they turned for home. At that moment, the Big 'Cap appeared to be wide open. Kayak II inserted himself into the mix, getting into second while Seabiscuit traveled in third. Then, it happened. The moment so anticipated unfolded in front of the gigantic crowd.
Seabiscuit moved into the lead, producing a loud cheer from the fans. Less than a quarter-mile separated him from the win. Would the third time be the charm for the beloved little horse?
Kayak was not going to give up his reign without a fight, moving powerfully on the outside in an attempt to be the race's first two-time winner. Seabiscuit made an equally powerful move, surging forward to move along the inside to save ground for the last part of the contest. The Howard horses were now first and second, the only question being the finishing order. Either Kayak would defend his crown, or Seabiscuit was going to make it win number thirty-three.
Kayak put on a fine performance, but Seabiscuit was not going to lose the Big 'Cap again. His stride was fluid, and he moved like the champion he was. No one headed him at the wire. The fans cheered in delight as the underdog horse finally became champion of the Hundred Grander, coming to the wire in 2:01 1/5. With the trophy came an additional title. The winner's share of the purse made Seabiscuit the world's highest earning Thoroughbred, eclipsing Sun Beau. It was fitting, given Seabiscuit's rags-to-riches story. He went from low level races to defeating a Triple Crown winner and becoming Horse of the Year, and now he was the richest horse of them all. And it came at the track where he held court for so long and amazed so many fans.
The 1940 Big 'Cap proved to be Seabiscuit's final race. He has not roamed Santa Anita in decades, but he remains a presence at the track with the statue erected in his honor. Those who visit the Arcadia track can see the statue in the walking ring, and with it is a plaque mentioning his Big 'Cap win and what was at the time his earnings record. The statue captures Seabiscuit's focused demeanor, which was seen by countless individuals in his era.
Seabiscuit retired a winner. He retired a champion. He retired a legend. He retired an icon. And he did so with his legendary performance in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap.