Standing in the paddock with Frank Stronach before last year's Santa Anita Handicap, trainer Bobby Frankel looked up at the odds board and saw that his two-horse entry of Euchre and Milwaukee Brew was listed as the second choice.
"They're betting Euchre, but I think Milwaukee Brew is the horse to beat," Frankel said to Stronach, who owned both horses -- as well as the racetrack. "I'm not saying he's going to win, but I think he's the horse to beat."
About 15 minutes later, Milwaukee Brew did win the $1-million race, dashing a losing streak that had stretched over eight races and almost 19 months.
Frankel would not have run the horse if Mizzen Mast, who would have been the Big 'Cap favorite, had not been sidelined by a hoof injury. Milwaukee Brew's $2 win price, $11.40, would have at least tripled had he not been coupled with Euchre, who beat only one horse.
Today, it's another Santa Anita Handicap, the 66th, and it's Milwaukee Brew trying to shake another losing streak, although at five races and eight-plus months, it's a mild slump compared to the previous one. Once again, Frankel is going into Santa Anita's richest race without his best weapon. He pulled Medaglia d'Oro earlier this week after the colt was given a 124-pound weight assignment, the same as Congaree.
Jeff Tufts, the Santa Anita linemaker, said that he wasn't sure which horse he would have favored, had Medaglia d'Oro and Congaree both run, but one probably would have been 9-5 and the other 2-1. Now Congaree, 4-5 on the morning line, could become the first odds-on starter, in a field of five or more, since Farma Way won at 9-10 in 1991.
Milwaukee Brew, who has won only once since the 2002 Santa Anita Handicap, in the Californian at Hollywood Park last June, is stepping into historical territory where only John Henry has tread successfully. With the help of the stewards' disqualification of Perrault in 1982, John Henry won the Big 'Cap in 1981 and '82, becoming the only double winner. Thirteen horses, most recently Malek in 2000 and Urgent Request in 1996, have failed to piggyback wins in the 1 1/4-mile race.
Milwaukee Brew is 7-2, the third choice, on the Tufts line.
"I think he's got a good shot," said Frankel, conceding that the race scenario would have been better for Stronach's 6-year-old if Medaglia d'Oro, owned by Ed Gann, had run.
Congaree, who picked up Jerry Bailey, rider of a near-record 67 stakes winners last year, after Medaglia d'Oro was withdrawn, is a horse consistently chummy with the early pace, a style not unlike Medaglia d'Oro's. Milwaukee Brew, ridiculously far back in some of his races -- he trailed by 15 lengths before finishing third in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar -- could have been the benefactor of a speed duel between Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro.
"I know," Frankel said, "but I had to do what I thought was right for the horse. Sometimes I get sent signals about these things. And the signal this time was not to run with the 124. There's no pressure now. The Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup isn't the issue. It's a long year and there are a lot of big races left."
Frankel was just familiarizing himself with Milwaukee Brew when he won the Big 'Cap. Bought from his breeder, Robert Spiegel, for $230,000 when he was a yearling, the son of Wild Again, the 1984 Breeders' Cup Classic winner, started his career with Tino Attard, one of Stronach's Canadian trainers.
Milwaukee Brew won four of nine races under Attard, including the 2000 Ohio Derby, before he was transferred to Joe Orseno, who was then Stronach's principal trainer in the U.S. Milwaukee Brew hit the board twice, but never won, for Orseno, and was sent to Frankel in California in December 2001. After Frankel saddled him for the first time, for a sixth-place finish in the Whirlaway Handicap at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, he was ready to send him back to Louisiana, for the New Orleans Handicap, until Mizzen Mast's hoof required extra care.
Frankel has changed both jockeys and equipment since last year. Kent Desormeaux, who won the Big 'Cap with Milwaukee Brew, doesn't have a mount in today's race and in fact has announced that he's moving, at least temporarily, to Kentucky to ride at the Keeneland meet that opens April 4. Desormeaux also won the Californian aboard Milwaukee Brew, but after the first three losses in the horse's current streak, Frankel went to Edgar Prado, a leading Florida and New York rider who was second to Bailey last year in purses and won this year's Santa Anita-sponsored George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award.
Orseno had used Prado once to ride Milwaukee Brew. The Peruvian jockey and the horse were reunited in October's Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park. Again, Milwaukee Brew dropped back. He was ahead of only two horses after half a mile, then made a belated move from the outside and finished third, behind Volponi and Medaglia d'Oro.
For the San Antonio Handicap, at 1 1/8 miles three weeks ago, Frankel added blinkers, figuring a more focused Milwaukee Brew would rev up sooner. He did, and was in the thick of the battle from the start, but Congaree still beat him by 2 1/4 lengths.
Peace Rules, trained by Frankel, may be scratched from today's San Rafael to run in the $750,000 Louisiana Derby on March 9.... With David Flores electing to ride Atwhaimtalknbout in the San Felipe on March 16, Jerry Bailey has been named to ride Domestic Dispute.
Victor Espinoza and Felipe Martinez, shaken up in a spill Thursday, took off Friday but are expected to ride today.... Matt Garcia, whose mount, Nlotsabutter, was disqualified after winning Wednesday's sixth race, has been suspended for 10 days, starting Sunday.
The Big 'Cap
The 66th Santa Anita Handicap, to be run as the ninth race on today's card at
Post: Approximately 4 p.m.
TV: HorseRacing TV on KDOC (Ch. 56).
Purse: $1 million.
Distance: 1 1/4 miles.
Conditions: Grade I handicap for 4-year-olds and up.