The Santa Anita Handicap used to be the biggest race on Santa Anita’s calendar. It was the first $1-million race at Santa Anita attracting the best older horses in the country.
But then came the country’s fascination with brilliant 3-year-olds who had breeding contracts before the end of the year. And then the mega-purses at Dubai, and most recently, the Pegasus at Gulfstream Park.
The race, known as the Big ’Cap, is now worth $600,000 and plays a backup role to whatever Kentucky Derby prep is on the card. On Saturday, it’s the $1-million Santa Anita Derby.
The Santa Anita Handicap was originally scheduled to be run on March 9, the same day as the San Felipe Stakes for 3-year-olds, but the track was temporarily shut down after a dramatic rise in horse fatalities. It now numbers 23 and has cast an ever-darkening cloud over the track. Saturday’s card has seven stakes races.
This year’s Big ’Cap has only six entrants. Most eyes will be on McKinzie, who was the top horse in Bob Baffert’s barn last year until he was injured and replaced by Justify, who went on to win the Triple Crown.
But the horse that most personifies the counterintuitive nature of an older horse race in the midst of Kentucky Derby fever is Gift Box, a 6-year-old.
Where most horses are purchased as yearlings or 2-year-olds, Gift Box was bought as a 5-year-old by Eclipse Award-winning owners Kosta and Pete Hronis at the urging of their trainer John Sadler.
“What made it possible is I’ve got owners that support me and let me think out of the box,” Sadler said. “If you were to propose a 5-year-old to most owners they would look at you cross-eyed. Sometimes you take a chance and it works. It takes a little creativity.”
Gift Box was lightly raced, 13 races when he was sold, for a 5-year-old, running for trainer Chad Brown back east. Will Farish, of Lane’s End Farm, was the owner and was looking to move the horse. Hronis has a friendship with Farish, and Accelerate, last year’s older horse Eclipse winner, is a stallion at Lane’s End.
Hronis did not disclose the purchase price but described it as very reasonable.
“We’ve got a good relationship with Lane’s End,” Hronis said. “They know we’re going to take good care of one of their guys.”
Gift Box wasn’t purchased until last year’s Del Mar meeting in the summer, having run his last race in late March, an 8 ¾ length win in an allowance in New York. He made his first start for Sadler and Hronis on Dec. 26, winning the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes by half-a-length. It was his first stakes victory.
Despite being talented and a bargain, Gift Box was a sentimental choice for Sadler. He is from the first crop by Twirling Candy, a horse Sadler trained.
“He’s close to my heart,” Sadler said. “I’ve been following him right along and liked him from a personal standpoint. Twirling Candy has turned out be a good stallion. The last time I went back to Kentucky I got a good look at him and when he became available, we bought him.”
The plan was to run him in the originally scheduled Big ’Cap and then in the Oaklawn Handicap.
“But when the schedule here went upside down, we had to change things,” Sadler said. “After this race. Now we’re going to look to a stakes back in Kentucky.”
Both Sadler and Hronis said that Gift Box, as an older horse, adapted well to change in timing and they are not expecting any problems.
“He’s trained really well,” Sadler said. “This is only his second start for me, so I don’t really know him as well as other horses in the barn. But I like how things have unfolded so far. I feel good about him.”
Sadler keeps a very diversified stable for Hronis and usually is not too fixated in the Triple Crown races, although Hronis has his first Santa Anita Derby starter in Nolo Contesto.
“The Triple Crown is a big deal and I want to be part of it,” Hronis said. “But mostly from Day 1 we point our horses for the Breeders’ Cup. There are so many options, being boy, girl, short, long, turf, dirt. The Kentucky Derby, for 3-year-olds on the first Saturday in May is an awful small window to crawl through. To try and point for that is almost impossible.”
A win on Saturday will certainly put Gift Box on point for the Breeders’ Cup with a very long way to go.
“When we heard he was available, we jumped on it,” Hronis said. “In his last five races, I think he had four seconds and a first. So, I knew he was a good healthy horse. We thought the West Coast would do him good and we thought John Sadler would do him good. Plus, we had sent Accelerate to the breeding shed and we needed a good handicap horse.”