Trainer John Shirreffs seeks first Santa Anita Handicap win; Baffert suspension upheld

Express Train is shown leading Tripoli (outside) in the Grade II, $250,000 San Diego Handicap.
Express Train, right, is the favorite to win the Santa Anita Handicap, a race his veteran trainer, John Shirreffs, has never won.
(Kelley Carlson)

Trainer John Shirreffs has accomplished a lot in more than four decades in the business. He won the Kentucky Derby in 2005 with 50-1 long shot Giacomo. He won the Breeders’ Cup Classic with perhaps the greatest female horse of all-time when Zenyatta beat the boys in 2009. He’s taken the Santa Anita Derby three times.

But, there is one thing the 76-year-old Vietnam veteran has never won — the Santa Anita Handicap. He hopes to change that Saturday when he takes the 8-5 favorite Express Train to post in the Grade 1 $650,000 race.

The Santa Anita Handicap, better known by its nickname the Big ‘Cap, is one of six graded stakes worth $2.45 million on one of Santa Anita’s three biggest race days of its six-month season. Also on the card is the Grade 2 $400,000 San Felipe Stakes for 3-year-olds. It’s essentially a win-and-you’re-in Kentucky Derby prep race for everyone except trainer Bob Baffert ... for now.


The six-time Kentucky Derby winner is facing a 90-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for a positive drug test on last year’s disqualified Derby winner Medina Spirit. On Friday, the racing commission voted to not grant a stay of the suspension pending an appeal. A stay is almost always granted on appeal, making this a highly unusual move.

Baffert and the racing commission will go to court March 17 before a District Court judge to see if a stay will be granted. As for the positive, Baffert’s attorneys have contended that the rules do not cover betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory that’s legal except on race day, when administered by ointment rather than injection. Churchill Downs has suspended Baffert from its tracks and barred him from gaining any Kentucky Derby qualifying points. Baffert has filed suit against Churchill Downs.

If Baffert is suspended by Kentucky, it would be honored by California and all other states with racing.

“It’s pointless to talk about that,” Baffert said about not being able to gain Derby qualifying points Saturday. “Right now, we’re trying to see what we have. Are they good enough? … I don’t like to get ahead of myself, just go week to week, day to day. Things could change drastically. You just go with the hand you’re dealt.”

The Big ‘Cap is a 1¼-mile race in which each horse is assigned a different weight to carry to try to even out the field. The better the horse, the more weight. Express Train carries the high weight of 124 pounds and it drops down to Soy Tapatio, the longest shot in the eight-horse field at 20-1, who carries 116 pounds.

With the advent of off-track betting, especially on your phone or laptop, crowds on race day have been on the decline. More than 85,000 people attended the 1985 Big ‘Cap, but today a crowd of more than 20,000 is considered good. More money is being bet now, however, just not on track.

“I remember when I was working for [trainer] Gene Cleveland and I went over to the apron near the grandstand for the Big ‘Cap,” Shirreffs said. “I couldn’t see anything because there were so many people. I didn’t know when the horses were coming into the stretch except by the wall of noise which would get closer and closer. At the Santa Anita Handicap, the atmosphere is electric and there is so much great tradition behind it. How many times did it take Seabiscuit before he won it?”

Bob Baffert files suit against Churchill Downs to run in this year’s Kentucky Derby. The courts will help decide the starting lineup to this year’s race.

The answer is three.

Express Train, a $500,000 purchase as a yearling, is the favorite by virtue of a convincing win in his last race, the San Pasqual at Santa Anita. On opening day of this meeting, he won the San Antonio Stakes, beating crowd favorite Hot Rod Charlie. In 16 lifetime races, the 5-year-old has won six, finished second four times and third three times.

“Express Train is a really beautiful equine specimen,” Shirreffs said. “Obviously, he has a lot of talent. He’s what you hope for in a race horse. He’s fiery, excitable and can hardly contain himself, all of the good qualities you look for.”

Shirreffs has one of the smaller stables at Santa Anita and doesn’t start many horses, but feels a special bond with those he does.

“The horses have really been the thing that have made my career so exciting,” Shirreffs said. “Being involved has changed my attitude in life. There aren’t a lot of people who get to sit on one and handle one.”

Shirreffs, who can often be found atop a horse leading his trainees to the track, remembers being around 12 years old when he first got on a horse.

“His name was Pedro and as soon as I sat on this horse, I could feel his heart beating. You felt a part of him.”

Trainer John Shirreffs is congratulated after Zenyatta won the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Shirreffs, along with six horses, three other trainers and one jockey, is on the nomination list for this year’s racing Hall of Fame. Winners have to be named on 50% of the ballots from the voting members. Other Southern California nominees include trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Corey Nakatani. The results will be announced May 11.

Prolific thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert capped off a rough week with his horses winning the Saudi Derby and finishing second in the Saudi Cup.

Baffert is already in the Hall of Fame and has two horses entered in the six-horse San Felipe — Doppelganger (9-5) and Armagnac (5-1), who are the second and third favorites behind Richard Mandella’s Forbidden Kingdom (8-5).

“Forbidden Kingdom is the fastest and quickest horse in the race,” Baffert said. “He’s extremely fast because he’s by American Pharoah, which I think is a good thing. American Pharoah is still my favorite horse.”

Baffert trained American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015.

Forbidden Kingdom won the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 29. Pinehurst, who just won the Saudi Derby, was second and Doppelganger finished third. The 1-1/16-mile San Felipe will be the farthest these two horses have run. Armagnac broke his maiden in his last race at this distance.

The other graded stakes on the 11-race card are the Grade 2 San Carlos for older horses going seven furlongs, the Grade 2 Buena Vista for older fillies and mares going a mile on the turf, the Grade 1 Beholder Mile for older fillies and mares and the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile for older horses running on the turf. First post is noon.