Saturday was my very first Big ’Cap day, and I woke up bright and early on a beautiful California morning filled with a sense of excitement for the coming afternoon. Since I was pretty jetlagged from still being on East Coast time, I decided to take advantage of my wakefulness by heading out to the track to catch horses training at Clocker’s Corner.
Clockers Corner is one of my favorite places to visit in the morning. There’s always an eclectic group of people there, ranging from fans to jockeys, trainers and television personalities so it’s a terrific place to people watch while also seeing some beautiful horses take their morning exercise.
After training hours were over, I decided to stick around the racetrack as there were only about two hours until the first race of the day. There’s something special about being at Santa Anita in the time leading up to their big events: there’s a controlled sort of chaos to the atmosphere as final preparations for the day are made and fans begin to trickle in to secure the perfect spot to watch the races.
Santa Anita Park certainly always takes care of the details for their daily races, but for their biggest days they go the extra mile. On Big ’Cap day, the track adorned the statue of Seabiscuit (winner of the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap) with a gorgeous garland of flowers.
After grabbing a bite to eat in the press box (they have the yummiest soup there!) I headed down to the infield of the track to check out the craft beer festival and the other events going on. The Santa Anita infield is a beautiful place to hang out at any time, and with the addition of so many activities going on I was very excited to see what the afternoon had to offer.
One of the wonderful options on the table in the infield was a mechanical bull – something that I am completely unable to resist.
So of course I had to climb on and enjoy the ride! Fortunately my friend Zoe Metz was there to capture the moment:
I have a really fun job!
The craft beer festival was under full swing, with live music, a beautiful setting and picture-perfect weather:
As I got ready to head back to the main part of Santa Anita, I took a moment to take in the massive crowd that had come to see the fantastic races of Big ’Cap day. It was a perfect afternoon to spend at the track, and Los Angelenos had shown up in droves to enjoy the spectacle.
Before I knew it, it was time for the afternoon’s major races to begin. The first big test of the day was the San Felipe Stakes, a Kentucky Derby prep that had attracted some very talented three-year-olds. The favorite was hometown hero California Chrome, who had some ardent supporters behind him!
The San Felipe affords its winner 50 points to the Kentucky Derby, so it’s a crucial race on the Road to the Roses.
And then they were off!
Favored California Chrome exploded out of the gate and surged right to the lead, showcasing his huge stride and amazing power.
And when the field turned for home, California Chrome was still in the lead, winning the race for fun.
It was a seriously impressive performance, and to top it off, he’s one great-looking horse! He’s also really well named: “chrome” in horse-people parlance refers to the white markings on a horse, and this guy has that in spades!
The next stakes race of the afternoon was the China Doll Stakes. This is a one-mile test on the grass for three-year-old fillies, and a field of 13 went forward to duke it out for the $75,000 purse. It was Diversy Harbor’s afternoon; the Tom Proctor trainee won the race by a half-length with jockey Gary Stevens aboard.
Up next was the San Carlos Stakes, a seven-eighths of a mile sprint for horses four years old and older. Six-year-old Sahara Sky stole the show, awarding his backers $8.80 for every $2 the bet on him to win.
Then it was time for the Frank E. Kilroe Mile – this is a test for horses four years old and older competing on the turf course. It’s a pretty major race, with $350,000 on the line; and there were some very impressive horses lined up to make a run for it. I was excited to see Za Approval, who ran a gutsy second to Wise Dan in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile.
And with that, it was time to get ready for the afternoon’s biggest race, the Santa Anita Handicap. Known as the Big ’Cap in racing circles, this race certainly lived up to that moniker this year with horses such as Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man, 2013 champion 3-year-old male Will Take Charge and two-time Big ’Cap winner Game On Dude slated to run. I headed down to the paddock to take in the scene and get photos of the horses as they paraded for fans, who were lined up around the enclosure to catch a glimpse of these rock star equines.
The horses all looked amazing: it was a huge race that was being shown on national TV, after all, and everyone had their party clothes on. Here’s favorite Mucho Macho Man before the race:
And the incredibly gorgeous Will Take Charge:
Game On Dude, aka “The King of California:”
After the horses had been saddled and jockeys were given their final prerace instructions, the field moved onto the racetrack to warm up for the Big ’Cap. Fans followed, lining the rail to watch what may be the best race thus far in 2014.
Then it was time. As the gates sprang open for the start of the race, a roar went up from the crowd as the horses surged onto the track.
And as the horses turned for home, it was Game On Dude in the lead. He’d been in front nearly every step of the way, and when Will Take Charge rallied up to challenge him, Game On Dude found another gear and took the Big ’Cap by a length and three quarters for an unprecedented third win in the historic race. It was an amazing, unforgettable moment, and as he crossed under the finish line I turned to a friend and shouted, “My God, I love this game!” It was that kind of moment.
My dear friend and fellow photographer Zoe Metz is the biggest Game On Dude fan in the world. She’s at Santa Anita Park almost every day, and makes a point to go visit him in his barn every time she’s at the track. So when the Dude won his third Big ’Cap, Zoe was in tears of joy. She got lots of hugs from her fellow photographers and race fans, and I found myself welling up, too: Game On Dude, the 7-year-old sensation, had just given us a goose bump-inducing performance, and to win this race for the third time earned him a more than justified place in horse racing’s history books.
As Game On Dude and jockey Mike Smith came back to the winner’s circle, the crowd was on its feet cheering their hometown hero. Mike had a smile as wide as the California sky on his face, and to honor Game On Dude’s fans he rode down the entire stretch to show off his champion.
Then it was time to for the Dude and his team to get into the winner’s circle. Game On Dude had a garland of flowers placed around his neck, and his team circled in front of the grandstand to allow photographers a chance to capture their image and to allow the Dude’s human connections a chance to bask in their victory.
Then it was time for the winner’s circle photo; as the Dude’s human connections posed for their picture, fans in the crowd were yelling their congratulations, support and even thanks for the chance to see the Dude win one more Big ’Cap.
I also loved seeing Mike Smith with trainer Bob Baffert’s son Bode right in the thick of things. I imagine that that will be a memory that boy will cherish for a lifetime.
As the crowd began to disperse and the horses went home to enjoy their dinner, I reflected on how lucky we are as fans and followers of this sport to be treated to such an amazing spectacle. The electricity in the air and the level of competition in the Big ’Cap was truly unforgettable, and I have a feeling that 2014 will be a very good year for horse racing.
Thank you so much for stopping by! Let me know in the comments what your favorite moment of Saturday’s races was, and I’ll be back soon with more diaries from my travels from track to track.