Santa Anita Report: Tiznow Overcomes Problems

Santa Anita Report: Tiznow Overcomes Problems
Photo: Associated Press / Chris Urso
Chris McCarron guides Horse of the Year Tiznow to a five length win in the Santa Anita Handicap.
Published in March 10 issue of The Blood-Horse
The great ones find a way to get past it all. Enough commotion had swirled around Tiznow and his preparation for the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) that by the time the actual race rolled around, some were wondering why he was even there to begin with.

As if his drab effort in last month's Strub Stakes (gr. II) wasn't reminder enough, Tiznow's days leading up to the Big 'Cap were like a roll call of mishaps, evil vibes, and plain bad karma. Lest we forget, this is the same horse who was a no-name last spring and Horse of the Year five months later, and the same animal whose grueling fall campaign left fans and hardboots alike in awe. No, he's not impervious to pain or the elements, but there may just be nothing that can stop him

And so on March 3, it all came crashing down--not on Tiznow, but on the hapless bunch he blew off the track by five devastating lengths. It was the Tiznow everybody feared and the Tiznow everybody loves. And it was the shot in the arm those close to the horse needed to help extinguish the embers of the colt's perplexing defeat a month ago.

"I don't know what happened in the Strub, I really don't," said his trainer, Jay Robbins. "I was really disappointed in the Strub because I thought he was in a lot better position from a fitness standpoint than he was going into the San Fernando (Breeders' Cup Stakes, gr. II)."

That was nothing compared to the mean quarter crack that played havoc with both Tiznow's right front foot and Robbins' repose. Farrier Buzz Fermin was called in for the repair work, which included lacing the crack together with wire and screws. The champ also dodged a bullet early in the week when he pulled his shoe from the same foot during a gallop and suffered zero damage.

Despite the malady, Tiznow's ravenous appetite for training never diminished. He continued to train up a storm, including the morning his saddle slipped and exercise rider Ramon Arciga went for the ride of his life. And when he blasted seven furlongs in 1:23 4/5 as his final Big 'Cap tune-up nine days out, jockey Chris McCarron knew the real Tiznow was back.

"What caused us to keep our confidence level high was the fact he'd been trying to run off in the mornings," he said. "He threw in two works between the San Fernando and the Strub that were lackluster. And they were lackluster only in one way--he didn't try to run off with me after his work."

"With the weather and the track conditions," he said, "Jay has had to go gingerly with him, and each day, you could see it was like a fuel gauge--it's getting fuller and fuller. My only concern was the same concern as everybody else--the foot, the foot, the foot."

It seemed like too much for one horse to withstand. The competition was willing to take the gamble.

"I think if he had run superior in the Strub, there'd be only five or six horses running today," said Mike Puype, trainer of longshot Perssonet. "But to me, watching his race the other day, he looked empty."

"They all think he's not the Horse of the Year right now," echoed trainer John Shirreffs, who went in with Lethal Instrument. "Everybody's trying to read between the lines and hoping Tiznow is not a 100%, because if he is a 100%, everybody's running for second money."

As a result, the roller-coaster ride brought out the largest cast for the Santa Anita Handicap since Greinton beat 12 others in 1986. For this one, they came from just about everywhere. Wooden Phone, fresh from his red-letter day in the Strub, was sent out to prove it was no fluke, while grass sensation Bienamado left the turf for a chance to prove his worth on the dirt. Guided Tour and Lethal Instrument had finished one-two in last month's San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) and both looked dangerous. A handful of others were following the same star, and with the headliner seemingly at risk and a million bucks at stake, there was no reason not to take a shot.

To the fans, 34,176 strong on a fair Southern California afternoon, Arcadia was just a one-horse town. Tiznow's dappled coat radiated with health as Robbins gave a leg up to McCarron in the paddock, and when the 122-pound highweight finally took his place in the starting gate, he had been hammered down to even money.

Moments later, when second-choice Bienamado entered the gate in post 12, starter Jay Slender pressed the trigger, and the Big 'Cap field was on its way.

The gate bells were still ringing when Bienamado did a near-somersault that brought a gasp from the crowd. The culprit was Tribunal, who plowed smack into Jorrocks at the break, sending the English newcomer right into the path of Bienamado. Somehow, the Bien Bien colt managed to stay on his feet.

"It's a miracle he got up from that," said Alex Solis, riding Bienamado for the first time. "I thought I was down."

Tiznow, conversely, had left in a beautiful groove. The track had been catering to frontrunners all day, and it was no secret to McCarron, who put the colt right on Wooden Phone's hip as they headed into the clubhouse turn.

Many, including McCarron, had figured Irisheyesareflying to be right in the hunt. Instead, jockey Kent Desormeaux kept the erstwhile claimer right behind the front pair, allowing Tiznow alone to shadow Wooden Phone down the backstretch.

The half went in :46.41, and moving into the far turn, Tiznow and Wooden Phone were rolling cheek by jowl around the bend. By now, Corey Nakatani's yelps and smooches aboard Wooden Phone were catching Tiznow's attention, and he gradually began to ease by his Strub rival under his own steam. The progression was so effortless, the colt's motion so rhythmic, that McCarron stole a quick look under his right shoulder for signs of danger.

"I gave one slight little peek," he said. "But I was going so fast I thought to myself, 'OK, I'm gonna look, and I'm gonna be shocked if I see anybody.' I just knew there's no way anybody behind me can be having the acceleration we're having right now."

And that is exactly what he saw--absolutely nothing. With Wooden Phone safely at bay to his inside and nothing threatening from the back, Tiznow swept past the quarter pole in 1:35.85 in complete command.

The champ hugged the rail as he entered the stretch, and in the blink of an eye had opened up by daylight. Tiznow danced down the stretch, his feet barely touching the ground as he bounded along to the roar of the crowd. Five lengths clear by the time he hit the finish, the dark bay covered the 10 furlongs in 2:01.55, becoming the first defending Horse of the Year to bag the Big 'Cap since John Henry in 1982. And Tiznow's margin of victory was the largest of any Big 'Cap since Best Pal, another Cal-bred superstar, rocked and rolled by 5 1/2 lengths nine years ago.

Wooden Phone stayed strong to the end, while his stablemate Tribunal rallied to take third. The rest were well strung-out. Irisheyesareflying hung onto fourth, while Guided Tour never made much impact, finishing fifth, beaten nearly 10 lengths.

Robbins was as wrung out as a wet rag after all was said and done, never relaxing until Tiznow slammed the door for good at the head of the stretch. When Tiznow reported back home with all four shoes plus the patch intact, the trainer breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Continued. . . .

(Chart, Equibase)

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