Santa Anita Race Report: Double Tough

Santa Anita Race Report: Double Tough
Photo: AP/Benoit
Milwaukee Brew, left, catches favored Congaree to join John Henry as the only two two-time winners of the Santa Anita Handicap.
Published in the March 8 issue of The Blood-Horse
Somewhere behind that tight smile and those gleaming eyes the words were there. You just knew it. Trainer Bobby Frankel, only minutes removed from Milwaukee Brew's riveting triumph over Congaree in the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), kicked back in the press box late on the afternoon of March 1, sporting a grin that seemed to utter, "Well, I hate to say I told you so, but..."

For Frankel, it was the ultimate vindication, a picture-perfect ending to a slightly rocky week. The man, many thought, had single-handedly ruined the 66th Big 'Cap just days earlier, scotching a potential blockbuster duel. Frankel never blinked, however, and had little trouble glaring right back at those who denounced his decision to let Medaglia d'Oro sit this one out. As it was, Frankel had all the ammunition he needed, and when the dirt had finally settled, Stronach Stable's Milwaukee Brew had made the grandest statement of all. It was oh, so sweet.

"The satisfaction is by me scratching Medaglia d'Oro and winning with this horse," he told a panel of media. "All the wise guys, they were saying I shouldn't have scratched, this and that, so I ran the right horse obviously. That makes me feel good."

Frankel spoke from the heart--and from pretty much the same press box location as he did when Milwaukee Brew first rumbled into Big 'Cap prominence a year ago. That afternoon, the sight had been a shocker, for the son of Wild Again hadn't won a race, let alone a big one, in eons, yet he ripped apart a ho-hum field like the second coming of Spectacular Bid. This time, though, the competition was formidable, both on the track and in the record books.

Milwaukee Brew's quest to score a Big 'Cap double was by no means unprecedented. Throughout the storied history of Santa Anita's marquee race, which back in 1935 became the first-ever six-figure event, a number of past champions had returned for a shot to defend their glory. For decades, however, not one was able to pull it off. Not Azucar, the inaugural winner, who mustered just a fourth-place effort in 1936. Not Rejected, who came back twice but still couldn't duplicate his 1954 victory. Prove It couldn't do it either, nor could Hill Rise, Nodouble, Crystal Water, or any of the rest, most of whom, in fact, failed to contend when they tried.

The showings weren't all poor, though. Kayak II took the 1939 running before running a good second to stablemate Seabiscuit the following year. More recently, local hero Best Pal, the '92 champ, came within a head of immortality, losing a heartbreaking photo to front-running Urgent Request in 1995.

Of course, any self-respecting fan with an ounce of topical knowledge knew full well that Milwaukee Brew would be going after the feat of one horse. Only the immortal John Henry could stand tall as a two-time winner of the Santa Anita Handicap, but even he got a little boost in the process, earning his second Big 'Cap on the disqualification of Perrault. In truth, no horse in track history had ever crossed the line first on two occasions.

And those who came out to Santa Anita on a chilly March afternoon didn't figure much would change. Milwaukee Brew's crack at history, in fact, was basically a footnote, for the big news, many believed, had already been made.

Since early February, the showdown that truly had fans excited did not involve Milwaukee Brew, but rather his stablemate, Medaglia d'Oro, and Congaree.

Both had been flat-out dominating in recent weeks, Medaglia d'Oro burying his rivals in the Strub Stakes (gr. II) and Congaree tearing through his competition as well, first in the San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) and then the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II). Both had also been ridden by Jerry Bailey, creating a "Who's he gonna pick?" intrigue that added extra spice to an already tasty match-up.

Medaglia d'Oro eventually got the nod from Bailey as the Big 'Cap drew near. He also got a 124-pound impost from Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle, a number that left Frankel peeved. His beef did not center on Congaree, who received the same 124-pound highweight as Medaglia d'Oro. Rather, it was Milwaukee Brew's assignment--119 pounds--that prompted his distaste.

The root was simple mathematics. When they met in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I)--a weight-for-age race--the older Milwaukee Brew toted 126 pounds, compared to Medaglia d'Oro's 121. Considering the pair finished on virtually even terms that day, the Big 'Cap weight assignments seemed incongruous to Frankel, and it was a price he wasn't willing to pay.

"To be honest with you," he explained, "there was a 10-pound shift in the weights, and Medaglia beat him just a neck last time."

The cast that finally came together for the 10-furlong Big 'Cap was small but definitely not lacking in credentials. Pleasantly Perfect and Kudos, both from the barn of Richard Mandella, gave the connections of 3-5 favorite Congaree and defending champ Milwaukee Brew plenty to think about. Piensa Sonando himself had shown ability but so far had proven no match for Congaree. Only Trompolino seemed out of place, but at least he showed up. Ultimately, it was Medaglia d'Oro's absence that kept the railbirds hoping for more.

What they got was a battle for the ages. Trompolino kicked straight for the lead as the Big 'Cap got underway, while the other five needed the first quarter-mile to sort themselves into place. Bailey eventually had Congaree flanking Trompolino on the right. Milwaukee Brew, too, was right there under Edgar Prado, just outside Congaree as they rounded the clubhouse turn, and the trio stayed that way through a half-mile in :46.70.

For Milwaukee Brew, the close-up approach represented a stark contrast to his winning run of last year. The 2002 Big 'Cap had unfolded at a merciless tempo, one which left Milwaukee Brew a full 13 lengths behind the pacesetters after the opening half. His come-from-the-back attack worked flawlessly, but that day, the pace was aberrational. As the year went on, the same tactics more often than not left the big guy with too much to do, and Frankel sensed a change was necessary. When Milwaukee Brew debuted as a 6-year-old last month, running a solid second to Congaree in the nine-furlong San Antonio, Frankel had him in blinkers for the very first time.

"I think we were a little dumb for not putting them on a little earlier," the trainer said. "He was getting a little too far back, and you had to ride him along just to keep him in the race. You don't know how they're gonna perform until you put the blinkers on or take 'em off. I figured this is the right time to take a chance. It definitely made a much better horse out of him.

"And we've got to give credit to Edgar, too, 'cause he's ridden him three times and all three times he's run lights out," Frankel added. "He's a perfect fit for this horse, obviously."

Continued...

(Chart, Equibase)

Most Popular Stories