Eddie Gregson, 50, has been going to the Santa Anita Handicap since he was a boy, but as a trainer he didn’t start his first horse in the race until last year.
Now Gregson knows.
“There’s such a big crowd on Big ‘Cap day (70,432 last year) that you can never tell how a horse is going to react,” Gregson said. “The crowd actually becomes a factor in the race.”
Gregson knows about crowds for another reason. He won the Kentucky Derby in 1982 with Gato del Sol, before a crowd of 142,000.
“A lot of horses freaked out that year,” Gregson said. “But Gato didn’t turn a hair. You could have shot off a cannon next to him and it wouldn’t have bothered him.”
Gregson will run Super Diamond for the second consecutive year as Santa Anita runs the Big ‘Cap for the 52nd time today. There are 11 starters in the $1-million race instead of four, which was the case last year when Super Diamond ran third, behind those two Kentucky Derby winners, Alysheba and Ferdinand.
Super Diamond, a 9-year-old gelding who has survived about as many physical crises as the Confederate Army, would be the oldest Big ‘Cap winner if he beats favored Nasr el Arab, Cherokee Colony and the others. Olhaverry was an 8-year-old when he won the race in 1947, which might have been the first Big ‘Cap that Gregson saw.
Last year, there was blame all around after Super Diamond was beaten by three lengths. Laffit Pincay blamed himself for the ride and can atone when he rides the horse again today. Gregson second-guessed himself for the way he brought the horse to the race.
“First of all, there was all the fuss in the paddock over Alysheba, and that got all the horses fired up,” Gregson said. “Then Alysheba bumped us a little bit leaving the gate and my horse got into that speed duel with Judge Angelucci. That killed off both horses.
“Laffit said it was his fault, but I think I ran the horse too fresh. We used the San Pasqual Handicap (on Jan. 31) as a prep, and there was five weeks, which was too much time between that race and the Big ‘Cap.”
This year, Super Diamond’s prep was the San Antonio Handicap, which he won by 1 3/4 lengths just three weeks ago. On a track listed as good, Frankly Perfect, Cherokee Colony, Stalwars and Payant--all Big ‘Cap starters--trailed Super Diamond, in that order, to the finish line.
Gregson is having trouble handicapping this Big ‘Cap, which is expected to be run on a fast track.
“There doesn’t appear to be any speed in the race,” he said. “But in a Big ‘Cap, you never know what that crowd will do to horses, making them run in a fashion like they haven’t run before.
“I don’t see us running on the lead. I figure we’ll lay up close to the lead, like he did in the San Antonio.”
Gregson has a vivid recollection of the 1986 Big ‘Cap, which drew a crowd of 70,177. One of the 13 starters was Herat, a 157-1 shot trained by Jack Van Berg.
“That horse was a wild horse by the time he left the paddock, and he almost stole the race,” Gregson said.
Herat led most of the way, and it took an exceptional effort by Greinton to run him down in the final yards.
Because of rain this week, Super Diamond worked a half-mile on Santa Anita’s training track Thursday and was clocked in :48 3/5 for a half-mile on a surface listed as fast. Gregson had planned the workout for Friday, but rescheduled it because of the weather.
“He finished strong,” Gregson said.
The difference, of course, was that undefinable ingredient, the crowd. On Thursday, Super Diamond appeared before a few dozen. Today, it’ll be many thousands.
Horse Racing Notes
Chris McCarron, who is aboard Alysheba last year, rides Cherokee Colony today and has a chance to become the second jockey to win the race in successive years. Bill Shoemaker has done it twice, with Rejected and Poona II in 1954-55 and with Lucky Debonair and Pretense in 1966-67. . . . Shoemaker has won the Big ‘Cap a record 11 times and is aboard Payant today. . . . Laffit Pincay, with five Big ‘Cap victories, has ridden in the race 20 times, 14 fewer than Shoemaker.
Trainer Charlie Whittingham, who has won seven Big ‘Caps and saddles Nasr el Arab, Frankly Perfect and Payant today, has had 56 starters in the race. His first victory was with Corn Husker in 1957. . . . Sandy Hawley, instead of Russell Baze, is riding Good Taste because there was some question whether Baze could have made the horse’s assigned weight of 113 pounds. Hawley resumed riding Friday after suffering cracked ribs in a spill on Feb. 11.
Robbie Davis, the New York jockey who hasn’t ridden since the day Mike Venezia was trampled by Davis’ horse and killed at Aqueduct last October, has been exercising horses at Santa Anita and expects to start riding there in another week. Although Davis was blameless in the Venezia race, he has been despondent ever since. . . . Sunday Silence, Whittingham’s best 3-year-old, won impressively in the slop at Santa Anita Thursday and is scheduled to run in the San Felipe Handicap March 19.
Corey Black rode Annoconnor to a 2 3/4-length victory in the $110,800 Buena Vista Handicap for fillies and mares at Santa Anita Saturday. Trained by Dick Mettee, Annoconnor was timed in a stakes-record 1:36 2/5 for the mile on the turf. Daring Doone, trained by Mettee and ridden by Shoemaker, was second, a nose in front of Pat Valenzuela on Daloma.