It has been 25 years since Ack Ack carried 134 pounds while winning the Hollywood Gold Cup.
When Jack Meyers, the racing secretary at Hollywood Park, loaded up Buddy Fogelson’s and Greer Garson’s recently purchased 5-year-old with four more pounds than he had carried in his previous race, trainer Charlie Whittingham danced around with the track’s racing office for a few days, debating whether to accept the weight assignment. Most people thought that Whittingham would run in the 1971 Gold Cup and Whittingham knew he would.
“In those days, you were stuck,” Whittingham said. “There was no such thing as putting the horse on a plane and going someplace else. If you went by train, it might take you a week or two to get there.”
With the lightweight Bill Shoemaker aboard, Ack Ack carried more than 30 pounds of lead--dead weight, horsemen call it--to make the 134-pound impost. They won by almost four lengths under a hand ride, taking home $100,000 of the $175,000 purse. Ack Ack, who won four times that year carrying 130 pounds or more, including a win with 130 pounds in the Santa Anita Handicap, got sick at Del Mar and never raced again after the Gold Cup, but at the end of 1971 he was voted the first winner of the Eclipse Award for horse of the year.
Today the Gold Cup will be run for the 57th time, with the winner of the $1-million race collecting $600,000. With Cigar, last year’s winner, on the sidelines, none of the eight contenders is carrying more than 121 pounds. Ack Ack’s Gold Cup record of winning under 134 can likely be carved in stone because this might be the last running of the race under handicap conditions.
Had the recuperating Cigar been ready to come West to try to match Citation’s modern record of 16 consecutive victories, he probably would have been given 131 pounds, one more than he carried in his last race. But a fact of racing life is that there are cargo jets and there are other rich stakes and no trainer is painted into a corner anymore. The owners of the few special horses, the ones the major tracks pine for, can pick their spots and easily opt for races run under more advantageous weight-for-age conditions. Cigar will fall into this situation if he runs at Del Mar on Aug. 10 in the $1-million Pacific Classic. Older horses will carry 124 pounds there; 3-year-olds will run with 117.
Daft is the trainer who doesn’t applaud the trend. “It never made any sense anyway, piling weight on horses,” Whittingham said. “Can you imagine any other sport doing it? If you have a title fight, does the champion have to fight with gloves that are heavier than the challenger’s?”
Trainer Richard Mandella doesn’t necessarily feel that handicap races should be abolished, but he does have a suggestion.
“Make all Grade I races weight for age,” Mandella said. “When horses get to that level, they deserve to go head-to-head with weight not being a consideration. Handicap racing isn’t even fair to the bettors. A horse might not be pushed as much as he ought to, because the jockey and trainer can be concerned about carrying too much weight the next time if they win by too much.”
Mandella would have saddled today’s high weight, Soul of the Matter with 123 pounds, but like Cigar, that horse has foot problems. Instead, Mandella will run Dare And Go, carrying 118 pounds, and Siphon, with 117. Tinners Way, two-time winner of the Pacific Classic and the morning-line favorite at 2-1, is also the high weight at 121 pounds. High weights haven’t done well lately: In the last eight runnings, only Cigar (126 pounds last year) and Best Pal (121 pounds in 1993) have won.
Dare And Go, winner of the Strub in 1995, is a consistent horse--six victories and 10 other in-the-money finishes out of 17 starts--but he hasn’t raced since early March and is coming into the Gold Cup off workouts. Because of ankle injuries, Dare And Go missed two important races this year--the Santa Anita Handicap and Cigar’s international coronation, the Dubai World Cup.
Siphon, a Brazilian-bred who has been racing in this country for more than a year, is the horse that lights up Mandella’s eyes. After leading all the way to win his last two starts, Siphon was scratched from the Californian--the race Tinners Way won--because of a bruised foot, but he has been training sharply.
Siphon has never raced longer than 1 1/16 miles for Mandella. Not many horses have won the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup on the front end--Ack Ack was one--but it can be done and has been done recently by Slew Of Damascus, in 1994, and three years before that by the 27-1 Marquetry, ridden by David Flores, Mandella’s hire for Siphon today.
Jerry Bailey--who has won two of the last four Gold Cups, including Cigar’s victory a year ago--will ride Geri, Cigar’s stablemate, today after winning Saturday’s $200,000 Hempstead Handicap with Serena’s Song at Belmont Park.
Geri, who races for the Cigar team of owner Allen Paulson and trainer Bill Mott, ran at Hollywood Park last year when he was trained by Bill Shoemaker, and that allowance win in June was the second victory in a six-race winning streak. The streak ended when the 4-year-old colt finished third in the four-horse Pimlico Special on May 11, but Mott is throwing out that race because of the muddy track in Maryland and so are other Gold Cup trainers who fear Geri.
Serena’s Song is usually ridden by Gary Stevens, who underwent shoulder surgery two weeks ago. At Belmont, the 4-year-old filly sloughed off high weight of 125 pounds to beat Shoop by 3 3/4 lengths, running 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 3/5. Serena’s Song, paying $2.80 to win, won for the 18th time in 31 starts and the $120,000 purse sent her earnings over the $2.7-million mark.
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Today’s Gold Cup
A look at the field for today’s $1-million Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park:
PP Horse Jockey Wt. Odds 1. Siphon Flores 117 5 2. Mr Purple Nakatani 118 9-2 3. Dare And Go Solis 118 12 4. Geri Bailey 118 7-2 5. Luthier Fever Desormeaux 113 20 6. Nonproductiveasset* Douglas 114 3 7. Tinners Way Dlhssaye 121 2 8. Helmsman* McCarron 120 3
* Wally Dollase-trained entry
Post time: 2:10 p.m. PDT