When Precisionist and Greinton hit the wire at almost the same time in one of the most dramatic runnings of the Charles H. Strub Stakes Sunday, Fred Hooper didn't budge from his seat in the directors' room at Santa Anita.
Hooper, the 87-year-old owner of Precisionist, had as much right as the two horses to be wrung out after the slam-bang finish of the $324,300 race, but that wasn't his reason for sitting tight.
"I've objected to going down to the winner's circle after a close finish ever since I saw what happened to Elizabeth Arden at Hialeah a long time ago," Hooper said. "She thought her horse had won the Widener. But when she got all the way down there, she had lost the photo. It must have been very embarrassing for her."
Had Hooper looked for a sign from his jockey, Chris McCarron, after the Strub, it would have been thumbs down. McCarron got off Precisionist and congratulated Bill Shoemaker, who was positive he had won with Greinton. Charlie Whittingham, waiting for Shoemaker to bring Greinton back, was smiling the smile of a winning trainer until the shocking numbers went up on the tote board.
"There's never any hurry to get down there," Hooper said. "If you've won, they'll always wait for you."
Precisionist was the winner by the shortest of noses before 51,638 fans, and they didn't have to wait long for Hooper, who bounded down the stairs on the long legs of his 6-4 frame. By the time he got to the circle, he was an octogenarian only by birth certificate.
Hooper got spoiled in the racing game, winning the Kentucky Derby with Hoop Jr., the first horse he ever owned, in 1945. But his resiliency is unequaled and he keeps coming back for more. Hooper won three Eclipse Awards with the brilliant Susan's Girl in the 1970s, and Precisionist's victory Sunday also belongs right there in the forefront, for the 4-year-old colt became only the fifth horse in history to sweep the Strub series, which starts with the Malibu and the San Fernando Stakes.
"I'm not finished," Hooper said. "I'm still young and I've got a lot of young horses."
Precisionist's victory was worth $189,300 and pushed him over the $1-million mark in career earnings. A slight favorite over Gate Dancer in the betting, Precisionist paid $4.20, $2.80 and $2.10, running 1 miles in 2:00 1/5, well off the world, track and stakes record that Spectacular Bid set in 1980.
Spectacular Bid, Horse of the Year in 1980, was the last horse to sweep the Strub, having been preceded by Round Table in '58, Hillsdale in '59 and Ancient Title in '74.
Greinton, the French-raced colt who finished second, four lengths behind Precisionist in the San Fernando, paid $3.60 and $2.10. Gate Dancer, rallying from far back in the five-horse field, was forced to swing to the outside in the stretch and finished third, a half-length behind Greinton. Gate Dancer paid $2.10.
Only the official photo and slow-motion videotape replays showed that Precisionist's nose bobbed on the line an instant before Greinton's. You can watch the replays at regular speed forever and come away thinking Greinton had won.
Don't remind Whittingham. "I thought I won, so did Shoe and so did McCarron," the trainer said as he hurried off the track. "I've had more seconds lately than I know what to do with."
Ross Fenstermaker, who trains Precisionist, was yet another observer who thought Greinton had won. "I thought my horse hung," Fenstermaker said. "In the last three jumps or so, I thought Charlie's horse had gotten a head in front. I was saying to myself that, well, the weight beat my horse."
Because of his earnings, Precisionist carried 125 pounds to Greinton's 117. The $500,000 Santa Anita Handicap is the logical next start for Precisionist, but Hooper said the weights would determine whether he'd run. Anybody who's been winning races for 42 years knows exactly what to say when the racing secretary--in this case, Santa Anita's Lou Eilken--is listening.
Halo Folks and Tsunami Slew, who would finish fourth and fifth, respectively, made mild attempts to keep Precisionist from stealing a big lead, as he's done in most of his winning races, but these were only pretenses. Halfway down the backstretch, it was Greinton and Shoemaker who had to make a move to prevent Precisionist from using the same script that worked for him in the San Fernando.
"I moved sooner than I wanted to," Shoemaker said, "because otherwise Precisionist was going to gallop to an easy lead like he did before."
McCarron knew this wasn't going to be a carbon copy of the San Fernando. "That was a smart tactic by Shoe," McCarron said, "because my horse was just loping until then. Shoe made us run around that turn."
From the furlong pole to the wire, Greinton nosed ahead of Precisionist at least four times, with Hooper's colt refusing to buckle. "I was in front a nod before and a nod after the wire," Shoemaker said. "But not when it counted."
Jack Van Berg, who trains Gate Dancer, applauded his colt's effort. "He ran a big race," Van Berg said. "Altering his course hurt him.
Both Fenstermaker and McCarron labeled the Strub as Precisionist's gamest race. "He was challenged by other horses and maintained his cool," McCarron said.
Hooper decided to keep the high-strung Precisionist on the West Coast last year instead of tackling the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown races.
"That's a lot of racing and a lot of moving around when you go to those races," Fenstermaker said. "Most horses don't come back at ages four and five and do as well after going through all that. By not going to those races last year, I think it's helped this horse."
He didn't need a lot of help Sunday. Just an ounce of effort on that last bob. If Bob Barker's announcer had been around, he would have told Fred Hooper to come on down.
Horse Racing Notes The victory in the Strub was Chris McCarron's eighth stakes win of the meeting. . . . The handle of $9.2 million was second highest in Santa Anita history, behind the $10.7 million bet on the day of last year's Santa Anita Handicap. . . . Rick Dominguez, the leading apprentice at the meeting, won two races, giving him 14 for the season. . . . Gary Stevens, tied with Eddie Delahoussaye for third place in the jockey standings, has been hit with a five-day suspension by the stewards, starting Wednesday.