Trainer Bobby Frankel has the most difficult task of winning the Santa Anita Handicap all figured out. You leave your best horse in the barn, and win with what's left.
What's left has been Milwaukee Brew, who doesn't win many races otherwise but turns up on Big 'Cap day looking like a reincarnation of Man o' War. Milwaukee Brew is two for two in Big 'Caps, and five for 20 in the rest of his starts. His stirring victory Saturday over Congaree, after a relentless battle through the final sixteenth of a mile, left Milwaukee Brew as the only horse other than John Henry to win the Santa Anita Handicap twice.
Milwaukee Brew's double came the old-fashioned way; John Henry needed help from the stewards, who disqualified the first-place finisher Perrault when he won for the second time in 1982.
Before Milwaukee Brew put away the game Congaree, 13 horses had won the Big 'Cap and failed in attempts to repeat. A year ago, Frankel's best shot was thought to be Mizzen Mast, who would have been the favorite but didn't run because of a cracked hoof. This time, with Milwaukee Brew trying to shake a five-race losing streak, Frankel's prime contender was Medaglia d'Oro, but he didn't run because the trainer thought a 124-pound weight assignment was two pounds too many.
For Milwaukee Brew, a 119-pound impost was just right. Congaree carried five pounds more, the same as what Medaglia d'Oro would have toted, and with the margin at the wire a head, the weights were a factor.
"Considering he was giving five pounds away, you can't take anything away from Congaree," trainer Bob Baffert said. "It's heartbreaking that he could run that well and not win."
The third betting choice in the $1-million race, Milwaukee Brew finished off 1 1/4 miles in a solid time of 1:59 4/5 and paid $9.60 for $2. Congaree went off at 3-5, the second lowest-priced favorite in the last 23 years. Kudos and Pleasantly Perfect, both trained by Richard Mandella, ran third and fourth in the six-horse field.
For Frank Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment owns Santa Anita, the 66th Big 'Cap day was a mixed bag. Stronach owns the 6-year-old Milwaukee Brew, having paid $230,000 for him as a yearling, but he also saw attendance fall to 25,160, lowest ever for the race. Ten years ago, the crowd was almost 41,000. Saturday's turnout was beneath the previous low of 26,015 in 1995.
"People have more choices now," Stronach said. "We need to be more innovative. We need to make it exciting. For a race like this, you should have 50,000. I've invested $800 or $900 million the last few years. You can't correct overnight what has been allowed to happen [by the industry] for the last 40 or 50 years."
Stronach sent Milwaukee Brew to Frankel late in 2001, after he had run 13 times for two other trainers. Milwaukee Brew's Big 'Cap victory last year ended an eight-race losing streak and he had won only one race since then.
At a three-pound disadvantage, Congaree beat Milwaukee Brew by 2 1/4 lengths in the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 2. To win Saturday, Milwaukee Brew needed to be closer to Congaree early, and Frankel put blinkers on his horse a race back to involve him in races sooner. "It was just something we did," Frankel said. "It's made him a better horse. We were a little dumb not to have done it earlier."
Out of the gate, the 35-1 shot Trompolino was fastest, and he set the pace while Congaree, ridden by Jerry Bailey, and Milwaukee Brew, under Edgar Prado, took up close pursuit. Nearing the far turn, Congaree and Milwaukee Brew both moved past Trompolino. In the stretch, with Milwaukee Brew running on the outside, Prado tapped his horse lightly, while Bailey gave Congaree seven good whacks from down on the rail.
"Bobby told me to sit closer to the pace than usual and not to let Congaree get away," Prado said. "He really gave me everything he had."
Laffit Pincay, who lost what would have been his 32nd Santa Anita Handicap mount when Sligo Bay was scratched because of a foot injury, narrowly escaped being struck by a fallen horse in the fifth race.
Trampus Too, who tumbled forward when Rainman's Request came over, forcing Pincay's mount to clip heels at the top of the stretch, got up and galloped off, apparently not injured.
Pincay, 56, suffered facial abrasions, complained about body soreness and took off the rest of his mounts, including Our Bobby V. in the San Felipe and Redattore in the Jimmy Kilroe Mile. Redattore won under Alex Solis.
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Trainers with multiple wins in the Santa Anita Handicap:
*--* TRAINER NO HORSE (YEAR) Charlie Whittingham 9 Corn Husker (1957), Pretense (1967), Ack Ack (1971), Cougar II (1973), Stardust Mel (1975), Lord At War (1985), Greinton (1986), Ruhlman (1990), Sir Beaufort (1993) Ron McAnally 3 John Henry (1981), John Henry (1982), Mr Purple (1996) Bobby Frankel 2 Milwaukee Brew (2002), Milwaukee Brew (2003) Gary Jones 2 Best Pal (1992), Stuka (1994) Willie Molter 2 Bobby Brocato (1956), Round Table (1958) Tom Smith 2 Kayak II (1939), Seabiscuit (1940)