The 1986 Santa Anita Handicap
With a plethora of equine stars, epic races and memorable milestones, the 1980s was indeed a Golden Age for Southern California racing.
Spectacular Bid. John Henry. Landaluce. Lady's Secret. Snow Chief. Ferdinand. Alysheba. Winning Colors. Sunday Silence. These were just some of the awesome racehorses that crowds witnessed during their visits to Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. Every single one of them had class. All of them became graded stakes winners. And all of them became Eclipse Award champions.
All of them were part of some of the most significant races of the decade, too. Spectacular Bid became one of the few horses to win the Strub Series. John Henry won three Oak Tree Invitationals along with becoming the first two-time Big 'Cap winner. Landaluce dominated the 1982 Hollywood Lassie by a whopping 22 lengths. Ferdinand took the 1986 Kentucky Derby while Snow Chief came home first in the Preakness. Winning Colors became the only horse to date to sweep the Santa Anita Oaks and Derby. And Sunday Silence decimated his rivals in the 1989 Santa Anita Derby.
Each of those races deserve recognition due to a thrilling finish or historical reasons. But another race, one that none of the legends mentioned just now took part in, heavily qualifies as a milestone event.
And just which race was that? The 1986 Santa Anita Handicap.
It had been fifty-one years since that first edition of California's marquee horse race. Beginning in 1935, fans saw greats like Woolf, Arcaro, Shoemaker, Pincay, Seabiscuit, Noor, Ack Ack, Affirmed and John Henry add the title of Big 'Cap champion to their lengthy resumes. If fans wanted to see the stars of the sport, the ten furlong event was a premier destination.
As the history and prestige grew over that half-century, so did the purse. Back in 1935, Santa Anita offered a $100,000 purse for the inaugural Big 'Cap. That was big news in the racing world, and owners sent their horses to Arcadia to take part in the occasion.
That subsequently gave the Big 'Cap a nickname. Known as "The Hundred Grander," its purse only expanded as the years went by. Fast forward to 1986, and the race came up with its largest purse yet:
One million dollars.
Already historical before the entry list came out, this was a Big 'Cap to remember. And unsurprisingly, it featured a huge field.
The forty-ninth Big 'Cap (it went on hiatus for a couple years when racing was postponed during World War II) beckoned thirteen Thoroughbreds, and there were some interesting names in the field.
Precisionist went into the race as the sport's reigning Champion Sprinter, but he was proven at a mile and one-quarter thanks to victories in the 1985 Charles H. Strub and Swaps Stakes, both of which were in the Grade I category. He was also the most recent winner of the Strub Series. Winning the Big 'Cap would put him in even rarer company, for he would join the likes of Round Table and Spectacular Bid as one of the few who captured that trio of events along with the biggest race offered at Santa Anita. Fans liked his chances that day, making him the favorite at 6-5.
Greinton was a terrific horse from Great Britain who consistently finished first or second up to that point in his career. After making some starts in Europe, he came to California and won or placed in various graded stakes. His victories included the 1985 San Bernardino Handicap and Californian Stakes. He was also well acquainted with Precisionist. The two had met throughout the Southland in 1985, trading victories in the handicap division. They were also known for sweeping exactas when they met up.
Dahar, who joined Greinton as a coupled entry, was no stranger to graded stakes wins, but he had his greatest success on turf, taking the Grade III San Gabriel and San Marcos Handicaps in 1985. He and Greinton were set at 3-1 in the wagering.
Another coupled entry consisted of Alphabatim and Hatim at more than 5-1. Alphabatim was the defending champion of the Grade I Hollywood Turf Cup, while Hatim was coming off a win in the Grade I San Antonio, the traditional prep race for the Big 'Cap.
Gate Dancer, long a familiar face to Southland racing fans, had won the 1984 Preakness Stakes and placed in several local graded events, but he had also lost to a couple of rivals in this field. Still, bettors saw him as not without a shot at 6-1.
At stake was not just a massive payday. It was the honor and privilege to be called champion of the contest that was symbolic of California racing. The excitement was there well before the horses even went out for the post parade.
When the gates opened and the thirteen contestants began their quest, none of the top choices took the lead. Instead, that went to the longest shot in the field: Herat. Classy in his own right, Herat had taken some minor stakes at Hollywood Park, and actually finished second in the Grade I Hollywood Derby a few months earlier. But he was not seen as anywhere close to being a factor in the race, relegated to odds of 157-1.
But on that day, Herat was going to run. And run he did.
Carrying the lightest weight of anyone in the field at 112 pounds, Herat took the field around the stands and into the far turn. He was not moving slowly, either. He set early fractions of :22 1/5 and :45 1/5 for the opening half-mile as Precisionist followed him. As the Big 'Cap continued down the backstretch and into the far turn, Herat stayed out in front. A lot of fans naturally figured that his time in the lead would come to a close soon enough and one of the principals would take over. But Herat was still the leader after six furlongs. And he was still controlling the tempo in the far turn.
The Big 'Cap was already memorable because of the substantial purse. But as the final quarter-mile loomed, Herat was out to overshadow the million dollars and engineer one of the most shocking moments in Santa Anita history. In the span of over one minute, he managed to take the race to an even more epic level!
As all eyes watched Herat complete the final turn, Greinton and Laffit Pincay, Jr. went after the leader. Precisionist and Chris McCarron were in their sights. Though proven at the distance, Precisionist did not have enough for Herat or Greinton on the day. Greinton got past the favorite for second. Pincay knew victory was not out of reach, and Greinton tapped into more power. With the gigantic crowd at Santa Anita cheering in unison, Greinton gained rapidly on Herat. Herat tried to counter as he sought to become the race's biggest longshot winner. But Greinton kept charging, drawing even with the leader. Then, with one final surge, Greinton cleared his rival. With one of the most thrilling conclusions in Big 'Cap history, Greinton and Pincay reached the wire just under a length clear of Herat in 2:00 flat. Pincay took his fifth Big 'Cap while trainer Charlie Whittingham celebrated his seventh.
Herat ran a tremendous race, and he managed to almost steal the show in front of tens of thousands at Santa Anita. There was no shame in losing to Greinton, and Herat ran like a champion that afternoon.
Given that the purse had reached the million dollar mark for the first time, it only made sense that this version of the Santa Anita Handicap would have an edge-of-your-seat finale. Without question, it became an instant classic thanks to Greinton and Herat.
Studying the 1935 and 1986 Big 'Caps, one can find a bond between the two races.
When it first debuted in 1935, the Big 'Cap generated a buzz with the $100,000 purse, and it lured a large field. That buzz was amplified in 1986 when it reached the million dollar threshold, and a large field showed up that day as well. A new era was underway in 1935, and 1986 showed how far that era had come.
The Big 'Cap had come of age with its forty-ninth episode. And that particular renewal is symbolic of what the event means not just to California racing, but also to those in the sport. It is a race everyone wants to win, especially if Southern California is home. To win it is truly amazing.
Though the Santa Anita Handicap has continued on well into the twenty-first century, it could be said that it actually came full circle on March 2, 1986.