Once they were the heavyweights of their sport, and across America on Saturdays people bent around radios, damning the static, to listen to their matches, as interested in the outcome as if it were Louis and Schmeling. But that was decades ago, when champion racehorses like Armed, Assault, Gallorette, Stymie and Citation stayed around long enough to become national heroes. It was considered downright cowardly in those days for a good horse to quit racing before he was five or six. Stymie was still racing at eight.
But for many reasons all that changed. American horses are not as durable now, and their owners worry about keeping head and hoof together just long enough to run them in the 3-year-old classics. Then the colts are hustled to the breeding sheds. So the handicap races, those glamour events of the past for horses four and older, became in recent times very moderate contests. But to everyone's surprise, this season may be different, for a tough, scrappy lot of handicap horses is developing on the West Coast.
Last Saturday Santa Anita drew a crowd of 58,228 to watch them, the largest attendance at the track since that day in 1966 when Johnny Longden rode in his last race. It was a fine racing afternoon, the sort that renews faith in a sport that is in deep trouble elsewhere in this country. More than a quarter of a million dollars was distributed in purses, which pleased horsemen. The crowd set a California betting record of $5,563,575, which pleased the management. And a track-sponsored lottery (with $15,000 distributed to fans for picking winners) pleased the racegoers. On top of all that, there were public workouts by Royal Owl and MacArthur Park, the best Derby prospects in the West, and finally the $170,000 Santa Anita Handicap.
The point of a handicap is to bring horses of varying ability together at the finish by adding or subtracting to the weight they carry on their backs. In the perfect handicap (and though men have tried for centuries, they have yet to produce one), pounds would be assigned so exactly that all the horses in the race would finish in a dead heat. Santa Anita's Handicapper Frank E. (Jimmy) Kilroe says of his theory of weights and measures: "At a mile and a quarter [the distance of the Santa Anita Handicap] I figure, in making adjustments between horses, that a pound and a half or two pounds equals one length. Basically, what I try to do is to guess the relative value of beaten distance. I prefer to put weight on an improving horse rather than on one just trying to retain his form. I think I'm within a pound or two of being right most of the time."
March 20, 1972
But every great handicap event (and most of the not-so-great ones, too) provokes pained cries from horsemen who shout, "Foul." "Unfair." "What does the handicapper think he's doing, anyway?" Inwardly, owners and trainers are delighted when a handicapper like Kilroe thinks their horse is the best in a race, but they feel impelled to rage at whatever weight they are given.
The Santa Anita Handicap was no different. In the weeks preceding it Kilroe had watched the participants entered in the big race battle it out in a number of smaller events. There had been several charging, flailing finishes. Two of the preps for the handicap were condition stakes, in which all runners were weighted according to the money they had won. In the Strub Stakes, Arthur Seeligson's Unconscious, carrying 121 pounds, had been the winner by half a length over Triple Bend, who toted 118 pounds. Two weeks later, in the San Antonio (another condition stakes), Unconscious carried 123 pounds and beat Triple Bend with 117 pounds by just a nose. Third place in that race went to Cougar under topweight of 128 pounds. So Kilroe got out his slide rule, and for the handicap decided that Unconscious, the improving horse, should carry topweight of 127 pounds. He lightened Cougar's load to 126 and boosted Triple Bend's weight to 119. The four other starters in the field, all outsiders, were scaled from 114 pounds down to 110.
As soon as the weights were posted the shouting began. Irishman John Canty, who trains Unconscious, thought his colt should not have had to pick up four pounds while Cougar dropped two, for the handicap would be run at Cougar's favorite distance. Trainer Vance Long-den couldn't understand why his Triple Bend was picking up two pounds after finishing second, but later, he quietly admitted, "He is an improving colt, and he probably deserves the weight." The happiest trainer on the grounds at Santa Anita seemed to be Charlie Whittingham, who handles Cougar for Mary Florsheim Jones. Whittingham has an uncanny way of winning very rich races, and he was obviously optimistic about this one: "It's a six-pound switch in our favor—two off for us and four on for Unconscious. But I feel that Triple Bend may be very tough."
There were owners, too, who had something to say. Texan Seeligson declared, "I don't mind being topweight with Unconscious, but I don't think they should have brought us up as much as four pounds. Still, if Kilroe thinks we're No. 1, I hope he and I are right and that my trainer is wrong."
Frank McMahon, the owner of Triple Bend, is not one to stand mute for long. His much-publicized difference of opinion with Trainer Johnny Longden as to whether his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince should or should not run in the 1969 Belmont Stakes is well remembered. McMahon won the argument, but his colt lost the race. In February 1971 (six months after McMahon announced Majestic Prince's full brother Crowned Prince would not be trained by Johnny Longden but was being sent to England to race instead) the McMahon stable was turned over to Johnny's son Vance. Last week Vance made it perfectly clear how things stood with his owner when he said, "I would just as soon Mr. McMahon make all plans and decisions about his 10 horses. I will just train them." Before the handicap Longden gave a further demonstration of his diplomacy by telling a nervous McMahon, "Your horse is getting better all the time. We can't complain too much about the weights, and if we can't win it, it means we just can't beat these horses, that's all."
The seven runners left the gate shortly after five o'clock on Saturday afternoon as the shadows were lengthening, and the whole glorious day very nearly turned into a disaster in those first few seconds. Marjorie Lindheimer Everett's Buzkashi, a 20-to-1 shot breaking from the inside post position, ran four or five strides in a straight line then suddenly bolted to the inside. He crashed through a temporary rail, dumping Jockey Eddie Belmonte in the process, and then hurdled the main track infield rail, where he was temporarily hung up, a thrashing, panicky colt who had done half a somersault and lost his bridle in the process. An alert gate crew rushed to restrain the colt, and had they not gotten him under control, Buzkashi might well have jumped back onto the main track and set off going the wrong way to meet his opposition, a dreadful thought to contemplate.
With Buzkashi, who represented the only real early speed in the race, out of the fray, the running plan for the rest of the starters changed. Jockey Don Pierce, who did not want Triple Bend on the lead at all, found himself there, just outside of Unconscious. They went by the stands that way the first time, and then as Triple Bend was eased back slightly, Angel Cordero put Unconscious out in front. It looked at this point to be a two-horse race. But Willie Shoemaker and Cougar were lying third up the backstretch, and they would be sure to make a big move in the final turn. They did. Turning for home Unconscious was still in front, although it was evident he was tiring after running the first six furlongs in a speedy 1:10. Shoe and Cougar now were flying on the outside. Triple Bend took the lead from Unconscious inside the eighth pole. Pierce knew that his colt, a son of Never Bend, did not like the whip, so the jockey sat tight, not even flicking it. Cougar gained on him steadily, inch by inch, but Pierce rode Triple Bend coolly and to perfection, holding off his rival by a diminishing head. Unconscious faded steadily to finish third, a length and a quarter behind.
For Triple Bend, who covered the mile and a quarter in two minutes flat, just two-fifths of a second off the track record, and for Vance Longden the triumph represented major comebacks. The 42-year-old Vance, whose moments of glory with Four-and-Twenty and Flutterby seem so long ago, was on top once again. And Triple Bend had come through some dark days, too. "I bought this colt from Leslie Combs at the 1969 Keeneland summer yearling sales," explained McMahon. "He cost $100,000. Soon after that he became caught in a fence, and as a result of the accident was partially paralyzed. We talked then of destroying him. Triple Bend only started once at two. But Vance has done a marvelous job with him, and now I think we'll give him a little rest." Vance Longden was looking on and nodding. He said, "Today I cut little slits in the back of Triple Bend's blinkers to keep him from ducking at the sight of a crowd. In some of his previous races he stopped when he got on the lead. But today he did everything right. I might even take the blinkers off next time. He does need a rest, but Mr. McMahon will make the decisions. I just train."
It is fairly certain that a lot more will be heard from McMahon and Triple Bend, if not from Trainer Longden. Cougar and Unconscious certainly are not going to let the winner rest easy on his laurels. Right now this closely matched trio is providing the best sport on U.S. tracks. So get out your transistors and tune in on Saturdays.