What is it about the pigment challenged horse that I find so appealing to the eye?
We are just outside a week away from what promises to be an outstanding 77th running of the Big Cap. As I always seem to do with the biggest of races, I find myself reminiscing about past editions that I’ve enjoyed in a lifetime of loving racing. And let me tell you, there are not many races with a richer and more storied past than the Santa Anita Handicap.
In my lifetime, the Santa Anita Handicap has been magical. One of those races which I did not want to miss, no matter what. It has truly been a race where the big horses ran, and more often than not, they won. Two of my favorite Big ‘Caps just happened to be won by near white horses. Vigors and Free House not only stood out in their appearance, but they were both horses that captured my attention in a big way. They also both used the Big Cap to put a stamp of excellence on their racing careers.
Way back in 1978, I was enthralled with a silver streak named Vigors. Vigors was one of those horses who will never be forgotten. Watching him was truly an experience. He had been a very good turf horse, but his career exploded with a switch to dirt. In the Big ‘Cap, Vigors continued his dirt streak of dominance by unleashing a furious rally that left poor Mr. Redoy, who looked like a sure winner at the top of the stretch, with no joy.
Owned and bred by William Hawn, and named for a friend of his, Vigors had everything the fans could want. He had the looks, he had the charisma, and boy could he run. More than 55,000 spectators came for the Big ‘Cap of 1978 and most of them were there to see the White Tornado. For a long time, it looked like it would not be the odds-on favorite’s day. Speedy Mr. Redoy had put away the good Crystal Water, and it appeared the race might be over nearing the stretch run. No one told Vigors though, and the big white horse gained on the leader so fast and furious that it didn’t seem fair. Mr. Redoy succumbed and Vigors went on to another easy victory, to cap off a huge day for his rider, Darrell McHargue. Just watch the “big white horse” go…
It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul and for Free House, I knew this to be true. I always felt that he had just a little more depth to him than the average thoroughbred race horse. Smart and sensitive with a whole lot of heart, you could just see what Free House was all about from his eyes.
Trained by Paco Gonzalez and owned by John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, that big heart of his was on display for millions to see in each leg of the 1997 Triple Crown. Unfortunately, none of his excellent pace-setting performances would earn him victory in those races, although the Preakness was painfully close. By the time he was just edged out that afternoon in Baltimore, I had fallen for Free House. Together with Silver Charm, the winner of both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, he was part of one of the greatest rivalries of modern racing.
In 1999, as a five-year-old, it was another chance for one of my all-time favorites to gain some revenge against his long time rival, Silver Charm. Throw in the very talented Event of the Year, and it was a most memorable edition of the Big ‘Cap. Chris McCarron sent the son of Smokester right to the lead, and he proved impossible to catch, despite constant pressure. As longshot Dr Fong dropped away, Event Of The Year fired his best shot, but it wasn't good enough. Silver Charm's late rally was also not good enough, and Free House was as game as could be in winning by a half-length. It was one of his biggest career victories in his penultimate career race.