Monday, March 5, 2012



California Intuition

    The Santa Anita Handicap is such a prestigious horse race, it's hard to believe it was never won by a Triple Crown winner before.
    It was the first $100,000 horse race, an audacious innovation in that Depression year of 1934-35, and some of the great runners of turf history have come out to take a crack at it-Equipoise, Discovery, Head Play, Twenty Grand, Time Supply and Pompoon. None of them won it, few got close.
    What seems even more astonishing was that only one other Kentucky Derby winner ever won the Santa Anita Handicap before Sunday. Lucky Debonair won it in 1966. Swaps was a post-parade scratch in 1956, but twenty Grand was 10th in 1935 in this race after winning the Derby and Belmont and getting knocked all over the track in the Preakness. Determine, Decidedly, and Ponder all ran down the track in this race. And the only other Triple Crown winner to try this race, Citation, got beaten by a light-weighted import named Noor who was to become to Citation what Tunney was to Dempsey.
    The race became a California institution like the Rose Bowl, Disneyland, John Wayne, or the swallows at Capistrano. But fewer of the classic winners ventured west for it when hundred-grand races became commonplace elsewhere, too. Only when, as it were, a homegrown product went east to outduel the dudes from the high society there, and came home with a part of the Triple Crown, did we get real TV horses out here.
    It was considered too tough a race to win from the home team. In 1937, before he finally won it, and after he had failed twice, a trainer said of Seabiscuit and the race, "If Seabiscuit can't win it, we don't have anything in our barns that can.” Eastern horses were known as "they" or "the invaders" in print.
    The victory of Affirmed Sunday is a milestone in California racing, the first Triple Crown winner ever to win the Big 'Cap at Santa Anita. It's also generally hailed as a win for the home team.
    Affirmed, you see, is a California athlete. Never mind that he was born in Florida. Ernie Nevers was born in Minnesota. Willie Shoemaker was born in Texas. Sandy Koufax was born in Brooklyn. Even C.B. DeMille was an import, as were Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks-to say nothing of the Brooklyn-born Dodgers, the Cleveland-born Rams, and the Minneapolis-born Lakers. You become a Californian the minute you throw away your overshoes. If you don't think so, wait until you get your state income tax. Even the palm trees and the oranges were imports.
    Affirmed solidified his reputation here as surely as James Cagney or Valentino. He won the Juvenile Championship at Hollywood Park in his two-year-old year. He was the sixth horse to win the Santa Anita derby and then go on to win the Kentucky. But he was the first to have the breathtaking audacity to stay in California to prep for the Kentucky Derby by running in-and winning-the Hollywood Derby. It was considered an act of faith that a horse had to run over Kentucky tracks at least once before the Derby.
    Laz Barrera, his trainer, doubted Affirmed was that well schooled in geography to tell the difference. Laz himself came to California by way of Cuba and Mexico, and it was his observation that horses were universal, and will remain so until they learn to talk.
    Laz and Affirmed confounded the hardboots, the Eastern Establishment, and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Breeding Assn. His "nice little California sprinter," which is what the down-easters historically call horses w ho run in the sun instead of the mud, became the 11th Triple Crown winner in history.
    Another clue that Affirmed was born to be a Californian-the state that gave you Hoover, Nixon, and smog, too-is the fact he broke the track record in winning the Santa Anita Handicap Sunday. If he were an "invader,' he doubtless would have done what most "invaders" historically do. Invaders not only do not break track records, they do not even break a sweat. Even the last Triple Crown winner to come out here direct from his smashing engagements in the East, Seattle Slew, was beaten by 16 lengths and three horses here.
    So, let's hear it for the hometown boy who made good, that outstanding product of California sunshine, Affirmed, our documented alien!
    And, we're not giving back the Dodgers, Lakers, Rams, or Farrah Fawcett either.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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