Santa Anita's glittering $140,700 Handicap, once the flossiest on the American turf, was made off with last week by a leggy, lazy graduate jumper whose future as a racer looked so unpromising a year ago that his owner turned him into a steeplechaser just to give him something to do.
But as she stood in the winner's circle at Santa Anita last week alternately laughing and kissing her victorious 4-year-old, Corn Husker, on his startled nose, Owner Liz Lunn proudly told her listeners, "Look, he's just a big country horse who doesn't have a mean bone in his body. He's just a lover, is what he is."
Actually, the big country boy colt had not exactly humiliated the best horses on the track. Thanks to an uneven and unimposing record as a 2-and 3-year-old, he had fooled Racing Secretary Jimmy Kilroe last December into assigning him to a trifling 104 pounds for the handicap, a mistake which every railbird in California caught on to when Corn Husker shut out several of the track's handicap stars in an overnight allowance on Valentine's Day.
Even Eddie Arcaro wanted to get the handicap mount on him after that but Eddie couldn't get within six pounds of the feather assignment, and the plum went to Ralph Neves who sweated off to 105. The gamblers were as badly fooled as the clockers on Corn Husker: he opened at 100 to 1 in the Caliente Future Book. Before the race, Caliente's John Alessio admitted, "We can get hurt on only one horse—Corn Husker."
Fifteen horses entered Santa Anita's big race. The best horse in the barns at Santa Anita this year was a South American flyer, Holandes II. But Holandes slumped to also-ran when Terrang took the prep San Antonio Handicap two weeks ago in track record time and every trainer in shed row immediately took heart. Eighteen horses actually passed the entry box for the big race, and trainers were busy scouring the stable area up to race time for available exercise boys to take their mounts.
Despite three late scratches, Starter Billy Mills must still have felt as if he were lining up a regiment of cavalry when the field hit the gate. It swept past the stands the first time like the first wave at a Macy's 1¢ sale. The track was a soggy mess, thanks to an overnight rain, and a light-weighted sprinter, Battle Dance, tried to make a dash for the 100 grand. The mud-loving Spinney spun along with him, together with Film Director Raoul Walsh's Irish-bred Bounty Bay.
The experienced jockeys let the rookies have their fun for a while, but at the quarter-pole the real race began. The leaders began to drop off like swatted flies until Spinney steadied himself to hang on for third. "I could have gone to the lead any time after the half-mile," admitted the winner's jockey, Neves. "I knew that if this horse had class with that weight he could win it."
Holandes II, laboring under the second high weight (121), could not quite catch the country boy. The rush-hour traffic on the far turn when the front-runners began to back up did not bother Jockey Willie Shoemaker, he said later, but the finish still looked more like a quarter-horse race than the Santa Anita Handicap. Holandes lost by a half length, and he beat the third and fourth horses by fractions.
Liz Lunn, who showed up in the winner's circle stockingless and dressed in comfortable suit and muddy moccasins, was almost as languid and countrified as her horse, whom she bussed and hugged. Trainer Charlie Whittingham scratched his head. "When she shipped this horse to me as an extra horse, I told her. 'Don't send me any jumpers. There's nothing for him to jump out here.' " Commented Liz Lunn sweetly, eying the winner's share of $103,600, "I told him, 'Look, I'll buy the horses and send them to you. You train them and we'll be very happy.'" And she looked it.
All eyes here are on this week's $100,000 Santa Anita Derby, contested over the searching distance of a mile and one eighth. The race has produced three of the last five Kentucky Derby winners. With the weights leveled at 118 pounds, Gen. and Mrs. W. W. Kratz's Prince Khaled should be a top-heavy favorite. The colt's handling of the Breeders' Championship Stakes on February 2 startled even the Californians. The rest of the Westerners will not be asked to break in front of the Prince but will hope to wear him down.