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Crimson Giant tackles the Big 'Cap

Gelding has won only one race in his career, but he's coming off a strong effort at Santa Anita

Crimson Giant is a big, blush-colored horse with a lot of miles. In fact, the busy gelding might be one race from qualifying for handicapped parking.

He'll make his 67th career start in Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap, a stat that puts him up with such iron horses as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Cal Ripken Jr. Indeed, in an era where many thoroughbreds make a mere six starts a year, Crimson Giant has raced six times in the past nine weeks.

By all accounts, the 6-year-old is a lovable and happy horse who loves to run, skipping the usual morning sessions in favor of racing frequently in front of afternoon crowds.

But is he a factor?

Well, maybe not to win. Shared Belief is everyone's front-runner Saturday, one of the finest horses in America. The addition of Moreno on Wednesday brings another speedy pace-setter to the 13-horse field.

But coming off the best race of his life, Crimson Giant could be a game-changer, and is likely to be catnip to bettors looking for life-altering trifectas in this annual showdown of America's older horses.

"He's what they used to call 'hard-twisted,'" said trainer Charlie Stutts, referring to his horse's steely conditioning. "It's much easier to race a horse than it is to train 'em. Easier on the horse, easier on the trainer, easier on everybody."

"When he runs against really good horse, he runs through the bridle," says owner/breeder Bryan Carney.

Their optimism is fueled by Crimson Giant's last outing, a dramatic second-place finish that earned him an 88 Beyer Speed figure. In an allowance race Feb. 20, the 33-1 longshot lost by a nose, going eyeball to eyeball with the favorite, Appealing Tale, down the stretch, before coming up short against Rousing Sermon.

Sure, he's the product of a $4,000 mare and a $1,500 stud fee, by virtue of Formal Gold. Sure, he'll have 21-year-old apprentice jockey Brandon Boulanger aloft. But that's where savvy bettors like you spot value and opportunity, from a horse with lots of races and decent career earnings, despite only one win. Even though the Big 'Cap's mile and a quarter is a concern, that distance is a question for almost everyone.

Besides, if it wasn't for 50-1 Cinderellas like this, would you even bother with sports at all?

So, don't ever discount experience. And don't fret too much when you watch Crimson Giant in the paddock area before the race.

"He puts his head down like he wants to take a nap," Carney says. "But when he gets on the track...."

The old vet "warms up good," Stutts says. Then the big red gelding will wait for the rest of the horses to get in the gate. Once in, he'll rest his chin on the gate, waiting to explode. He likes to compete, and Carney hopes his horse will jump out front and never look back.

When Crimson Giant was born, Carney recalls, he stood up almost immediately and has been running ever since. Thoroughbreds naturally want to romp and race — check out any thoroughbred farm. Knowing that, both the owner and trainer seriously believe that horses today don't compete enough.

"Oh, other horses will race 40 times a year, sure," says Stutts. "But 30 times in the morning."

Carney and Stutts prefer real races to morning conditioning, when the track quickly becomes a chunky cereal — uneven and dangerous. They think a groomed afternoon track is safer, and a healthier use of a horse's natural energy and instincts. If he isn't racing, they'll gallop their horse nearly every day.

"You gotta show up," says the 73-year-old trainer, who himself has hardly missed a day of work in 55 years.

Carney, 60, blames the current tendency not to run horses often on a stat adopted by the Daily Racing Form that shows winning percentage. When owners and trainers began fixating on that, the tendency was to chase relative success, rather than numerous good finishes.

Meanwhile, Crimson Giant was running every two or three weeks, accruing racing acumen and $172,000 in winnings.

"He's the happiest horse you'll ever be around, never has a bad day," Stutts says. "He's smart too. He recognizes me when I walk in in the dark."

So, on Saturday, Carney and Stutts aren't just running a horse, they're running a philosophy — that gleaming speedsters bred to run should actually compete, often and in front of thousands of fans.

They'll put their money where their egos are too, paying $12,500 in entry fees in a bid to win a share of the $1-million purse.

"If this horse finishes first, second or third in the Big 'Cap, they'll only have to wait two weeks to see him run again," Carney says, noting that the sport does better when fans get to see horses on a regular basis.

Here's hoping their hard-working Cinderella won't kick a slipper.

Follow Chris Erskine on Twitter @erskinetimes

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