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The California Connection – the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby

By Jay Hovdey

 

The differences between the proud communities of Louisville and Los Angeles can be measured in any number of ways. In terms of distance, it’s about 1,800 miles as the crow flies. Core industries line up with fine bourbon in one corner and show business in the other. There’s Bardstown Road vs. Hollywood Boulevard, KFC Yum! Center vs. Staples Center, the Ohio River, which is muddy, vs. the L.A. River, which is dry.

When it comes to Thoroughbred racing, though, the two communities can find agreement on the everlasting relationship of their hallmark 3-year-old events. At Santa Anita Park, nestled in the L.A. suburb of Arcadia, the Santa Anita Derby always sets a large part of the stage for the drama to be played out four weeks later in a tree-lined neighborhood of Louisville, where the Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs.

The tradition runs deep, to the very infancy of the Santa Anita Derby. The fourth running, in 1938, was won by Stagehand, who came right back in his next start to defeat none other than Seabiscuit in the Santa Anita Handicap. Stagehand’s trainer was the former champion jockey Earl Sande, and the combination made the colt a red-hot favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

But after finishing third in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, Stagehand spiked a fever and had to be withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby field. Dauber, the horse Stagehand beat in the Santa Anita Derby, finished second in the Run for the Roses to Lawrin. One week later, Dauber won the Preakness.

From this stuttering start, the comingled history of the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby took flight. Over the next half century the racing press could be relied upon to chip in with regional clichés. Santa Anita Derby winners were always “from cowboy country” unless they were owned by an East Coast stable, in which case they were slumming bluebloods who dallied out West just long enough to put the rubes in their place.

On one side of the ledger are some spectacular Kentucky Derby failures by such Santa Anita Derby winners as Your Host, Silky Sullivan and Candy Spots. On the other is a cavalcade of colts who won both historic events, among them Hill Gail, Swaps, Decidedly, Lucky Debonair and Majestic Prince. And then there was a handsome list of Santa Anita Derby winners who ran too good to lose in Kentucky, but simply ran into another colt with destiny on his side: Hill Rise finished second to Northern Dancer, Sham gave gallant chase to Secretariat, Avatar beat them all but Foolish Pleasure.

For the 25 years spanning the centuries, between 1990 and 2014, the synergy between the two Derbies remained strong. A steady stream of 3-year-olds who did not quite win the Santa Anita Derby, but fared well in Louisville, included Kentucky Derby winners Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic and Giacomo, who paid off at odds of 50-to-1.

Santa Anita Derby winners, however, were having a rough run of luck, embodied by the narrow loss of Cavonnier to Grindstone in the 1996 Kentucky Derby. No horse ever lost the roses by less.

Then came I’ll Have Another in 2012 and California Chrome in 2014, both Santa Anita Derby winners who were even better when the whole racing world was watching on Kentucky Derby day.

“I never thought I’d ever win a race as big as the Santa Anita Derby,” said Art Sherman, California Chrome’s 77-year-old trainer. “Then when he won in Kentucky, it was like a dream.”

When pressed, owners and trainers from East or West will agree that three factors have conspired through the years to give the horses coming out of the Santa Anita Derby an extra push toward Kentucky. There was good reason such past Churchill Downs presidents as Lynn Stone and Tom Meeker were on hand to present the Santa Anita Derby trophy.

“The date, the weather, and the competition,” said Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham, a native Californian who knew when he had it good at home.

Whittingham won both the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby with Sunday Silence in 1989. Three years earlier, however, the trainer was not discouraged when Ferdinand finished third at Santa Anita. It was a strong race for the colt behind Snow Chief, a runaway winner, and Whittingham was convinced the longer Kentucky Derby would be different.

It was. Ferdinand won by 2 1/4 lengths, while favored Snow Chief finished far back.

“You can win all the Santa Anita Derbies in the world,” Whittingham said not long after Ferdinand’s win. “But to the guy in the street, the only thing they’ll want to know is if you ever won the Kentucky Derby.”