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San Francisco Horse Owner George Pope is opinionated about horseflesh—particularly if it happens to belong to him. When his Decidedly won the 1962 Kentucky Derby, Decidedly, quite naturally, became to Pope the greatest horse that ever lived. Similarly, when his Hill Rise ran the last quarter of the 1964 Kentucky Derby in a shade under 24 seconds (which may be the fastest last quarter ever turned in at Churchill Downs) he moved way up in Pope's private ratings. "The only trouble with that race of Hill Rise's," Pope says, "is that we had a little bad racing luck and got beat a neck by Northern Dancer."
George Pope is not alone in his belief that Hill Rise was the best horse in last year's Derby. That is why he could hardly believe his eyes when he looked at the blinking tote board last Saturday at Santa Anita and saw that Hill Rise was about to go off in the $100,000-added Santa Anita Handicap at odds of 12 to 1. A few days earlier Hill Rise had closed in the Caliente Future Book at 6 to 1. "I figured he should be about 3 or 4 to 1," said Pope. "Now, I don't bet on my horses, but when I saw this overlay I couldn't resist putting $50 on him to win."
Hill Rise did not disappoint his owner in the Big 'Cap, which is how race-happy Angelenos refer to the mile-and-a-quarter classic that was the first $100,000 stake in the U.S. when it was inaugurated exactly 30 years ago. Carrying 120 pounds—11 less than the even-money favorite Gun Bow and seven pounds less than Candy Spots—Hill Rise received a flawless ride from Jockey Don Pierce to beat Spots a length and a half. George Royal, a Canadian visitor, roared up from last place to take third money, just a head behind Candy Spots and six lengths in front of a weary Gun Bow in the field of eight. Hill Rise's victory, following dismal races in the Charles H. Strub and the San Antonio, proved once again that high-weighted handicaps can be both unpredictable and exciting.
Gun Bow, of course, was the big horse, and he was attempting to become the first to win the Santa Anita Handicap with more than 130 pounds. Citation tried it in 1950 with 132 pounds, but along came Noor to beat him with 110. If Gun Bow couldn't do it with 131 pounds, however, Candy Spots was a likely candidate with 127. He had finished three-quarters of a length behind Gun Bow in the nine-furlong San Antonio while receiving two pounds, and this time he was getting four. If you consider, as Handicapper Jimmy Kilroe does, that two pounds equal a length at a mile and a quarter, you would have had to expect these two horses to put up a whale of a battle for first money. Hill Rise was reckoned no better than fifth choice, no matter what George Pope thought.
It seemed certain that Gun Bow would either set the pace or be just off it, for that is how he likes to race. He is a runner of remarkable ability, and if he had not lost twice to Kelso last fall he would have been a near-unanimous choice as Horse of the Year. Even so, he had a highly legitimate claim to the title, having won stakes in California in January and in New York in October, while Kelso, as was his habit, saved his best efforts for the very end of the season. Eddie Neloy, Gun Bow's articulate and amusing trainer, hasn't forgotten his disappointing near miss, as evidenced by his reply when he was asked a couple of months ago what his plans were for Gun Bow in 1965. "Oh, shucks," he said, "we're going for Horse of the Year honors so we probably won't do much with him until August or September."
Gun Bow ran his usual good race last Saturday, only this time he ran it for only a mile, which was not enough by precisely a quarter of a mile. The long-shot Doc Jocoy tested him most of the way, and then Candy Spots, who had laid up in third place, took over and looked a sure winner as the closely bunched pack turned for home. But Jockey Pierce, who apparently rides Hill Rise better than anybody else—including Willie Shoemaker, Pope's choice to ride the colt in the Kentucky Derby—had other ideas. "In his last two races," Pierce said later, "this horse seemed to resent my trying to keep him up close to the pace. This time we decided to let him run his own race. It meant letting Gun Bow open up a long lead on us and then permitting Hill Rise to ease up to the leaders of his own accord and when he felt like it." Hill Rise scrambled around the pacemakers and overhauled Candy Spots at the three-sixteenths pole. He went on to win with no difficulty. The weight and his first six furlongs in 1:09[3/5] seemingly were too much for Gun Bow.
There will, of course, be other and more fruitful days for Gun Bow and Candy Spots, and with equal weights on their opponents they still are probably the two best older horses in the country. Hill Rise won't run into them again, at least for a while. He is staying in California through the Hollywood Park season, while Gun Bow heads east and Candy Spots goes to Florida for the March 27 Gulfstream Park Handicap.
The meeting of these three in the Santa Anita Handicap was no mere coincidence. From its inception, this race has always been a major drawing card. In 1935, the season the track opened, the upset winner was a horse called Azucar, and the glamorous field he defeated included such great names of that era as Equipoise, Twenty Grand, Top Row, Mate and Ladysman. It was this vastly appealing event that established Santa Anita as a prosperous, going concern. The chic, the famous and the sporty quickly adopted it. "In the early days," says Santa Anita Director Hugh Blue, "the people around here didn't know much about racing and they certainly didn't figure an afternoon at the track as a social occasion. At Pasadena's Huntington Hotel, which they used to call God's Waiting Room because it was awash with little old ladies working their knitting needles, there was never any talk of racing. Suddenly, after the first handicap, we noticed the ladies scrambling to buy racing forms—and we knew we were in. There were 100 members of the Turf Club the first year, and now we have 1,375, with a waiting list of 80, most of whom will wait for two years to get in."
In the 30 years since the first Big 'Cap the fields have included many of the greats of U.S. racing, and last Saturday, with 58,972 in attendance, the success of the event was reflected by the fact that the $4,966,052 wagered represented a new high at the track. Yet that may be beaten this Saturday, when a crowd of approximately the same size will show up to see if Bill Perry's Jacinto can head back to New York and then to Churchill Downs with a victory in the Santa Anita Derby in his saddlebag. Jacinto won his last warmup for this race with a magnificent performance in the mile-and-a-sixteenth San Felipe Handicap. Hill Rise won the San Felipe a year ago and followed it with a Santa Anita Derby victory. While his San Felipe was faster than Jacinto's, the latter produced one of the finest exhibitions of courage and ability in his first effort around two turns. He defeated Lucky Debonair by only a long neck, but it was the way he did it that was so impressive. Running between Gummo and Lucky Debonair for nearly a mile, it would have been quite normal for Jacinto to chuck the fight—which is exactly what the middle horse does in such a situation 99% of the lime. But Jacinto apparently inherited both guts and speed from his daddy, Bold Ruler. Twice Gummo put his nose in front, but Jacinto wouldn't let him go and finally overpowered him for good after they turned for home. In the stretch Lucky Debonair, who had been on the outside all the way, challenged, but Manuel Ycaza used his whip three or four times and Jacinto, in the first real battle of his young career, responded bravely to come on once again. He was actually drawing away at the wire. In this week's Derby he gets eight pounds off and will carry 118, along with all other Derby starters. Once again his most dangerous rival should be Lucky Debonair, but Trainer Eddie Neloy, who is still aiming for Horse of the Year honors with Gun Bow, will fire an entry of Gummo and Philately at him, and the racing world may discover, two months in advance of the Kentucky Derby, whether the big horse in Louisville is to be Jacinto or something that will come out of this week's Flamingo at Hialeah. Last year Californians banked everything on Hill Rise. It is a pity they did not save some of it to put on him in last Saturday's Handicap. After 30 years of reading past performances even the little old ladies in God's Waiting Room should have known better.