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Hovdey: Hammerle applies knack to anachronism

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

Okay, that’s a wrap. Everything that possibly could have been done to cut the legs out from under the Santa Anita Handicap as one of the sport’s great events has been done. Y’all can leave it alone now and let it wander along in peace.

First, in 1996, came the $4 million Dubai World Cup, dwarfing the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap with its proximity on the calendar.

Then, in 1999, the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park was elevated in purse money to half a million bucks, encouraging owners and trainers to choose between the two domestic events.

Next, California’s main track surfaces went briefly synthetic, reducing the Santa Anita Handicap results of 2008, 2009, and 2010 to the margins of history in spite of quality winners Heatseeker, Einstein, and Misremembered.

The $1 million purse for the Handicap was trimmed, restored, then trimmed again, but the real stake in its heart came last year when the Donn was replaced by the Pegasus World Cup and its $7 million first-place windfall. Since both the Donn and the Handicap are Stronach Company properties, this is known as a self-inflicted wound.

The Santa Anita Handicap is now surrounded by eight-figure monoliths, leaving it a tattered remnant of 83 years ago when it was the first event to offer Thoroughbreds a chance to run for the lofty sum of a hundred grand.

The purse for the 2018 Santa Anita Handicap is $600,000, the lowest for the race since 1985. For the money, racing chief Rick Hammerle has landed a field of eight that includes the winner of the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup (Hoppertunity), the Grade 1 Awesome Again (Mubtaahij), the Grade 2 San Diego and San Pasqual (Accelerate), and the Grade 2 San Antonio (Giant Expectations), along with Grade 3 stakes winners Prime Attraction, Curlin Road, and Fear the Cowboy. Only Top of the Game has yet to hit graded paydirt.

Because the Santa Anita Handicap is a handicap – remember those? – Hammerle and his aides had to dust off their green eyeshades and summon skills long dormant. These days, the subjective assignment of handicap weights has gone the way of pocket calculators, AM radio, and letters written in longhand. Hammerle, though, sheds no tears.

“Handicaps used to be a very common thing, and I don’t miss them at all,” he said. “You and your committee could spend whatever amount of time on the weights, then someone would come in and argue over a pound. How loud a trainer is going to yell, believe me, does come into the discussion. And nobody likes to get yelled at.”

For the most part, at least in California, weights for graded stakes are based on performance in graded stakes during a given period of time. Of the 59 graded stakes offered during the long Santa Anita meet, which runs through June 24, there is exactly one weighted under handicap conditions.

“And if ‘handicap’ wasn’t such a big part of its name, I would think it might be time to bail on this one, too,” Hammerle said.

But the race remains a handicap – thanks to its “Big ’Cap” marketing nickname dating back to the 1970’s – so Hammerle and his crew were faced with the eight entered Saturday who had started in only five handicaps over the past year.

“I’m not a big weight guy,” Hammerle said. “I don’t think it matters as much what you carry as how much you’re giving away. My thinking always has been, you want them to run, and you don’t weight them to lose.

“Now you look at horses running head to head, how they fared against each other,” he went on. “The distance of the mile and a quarter comes into play – has this horse done anything past a mile and a sixteenth? You gravitate naturally to the top three or four horses, based on their overall records.”

The local rule dictates that the topweight in a handicap can not be less than 122 pounds. Of the original nominees, West Coast was assigned top weight of 125, but he is heading to Dubai. That left Accelerate starting highweight at 123, down to Top of the Game and Curlin Road at 116, with the others clustered in between.

When given a moment to reminisce, Hammerle fondly recalls being part of the racing office braintrust at Monmouth Park in 1998 that put 131 pounds on Skip Away for the Iselin Handicap.

“He beat that Mark Hennig horse, Stormin Fever, by a nose,” Hammerle said.

Stormin Fever carried 113.

“I do look forward to the challenge of, quote, trying to get it right,” Hammerle said. “But you can only do the best you can.”

Viewed from the narrow perspective of modern expectations, Saturday’s gathering for the Santa Anita Handicap offers good value for its purse, along with a tantalizing puzzle for horseplayers. Hammerle, however, comes from a generation that savored the day of the Handicap like no other on the California calendar, when the reputations of giants such as Ack Ack, Cougar, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, and Alysheba were enhanced by winning the race, and not the other way around.

“It does bother me that this race has been dealt a dead man’s hand,” Hammerle said. “Obviously, after this year we’ll take a long, hard look at what to do with it, so hopefully the race can get back to the glamour it’s lost in the last few years.”

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