The Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano Handicap will be run as the closing day feature at Santa Anita this Sunday. It has been the closing day feature of Santa Anita winter-spring meet for many decades. This year it is the last race of the meet, and it may be a fitting tribute to a race with such a rich history. With the impending closing of Hollywood Park, this may be the last time that the race will close out the meet. Which would be a shame, as it has such a rich and fulfilling history.
A former Grade 1 race, its list of past winners reads like a who's who of west coast stars. Before the race was moved to the turf, such Hall of Famers such as Seabiscuit and Noor won the race. Once it was switched to its current distance of a mile and three-quarters and put on the turf, it became a staple on the Southern California turf schedule. Some of the past winners have gone on to win older turf male Eclipse Award. The 1993 winner Kotashaan went on to win the Eclipse awards for Horse of the Year & Older Turf Male. Some of the other past winners who went on the win other multiple grade 1's are John Henry, St Vincent and Bien Bien. There have been 5 repeat winners, all in consecutive years. But one winner will always be remembered for defending his title in 1966, but more for the circumstances around it.
Johnny Longden, one of the top 5 riders of all time, decided that George Royal in the 1966 renewal of the San Juan would be his final mount before retirement. At the time, Johnny was the all-time leader rider in victories, a hall of famer and a crowd favorite. Every mount he had in those last days was driven down in the odds. His last mount, George Royal, had been off the board in his last 4 races leading up to the race. Yet somehow, someway, both horse and jockey stepped up and won in a thrilling stretch drive over Plaque. The fairytale ending had occurred and left a indelible mark on the horse racing landscape. He holds the record for most number of victories in the race with 5, tied with the man who went on to break his record, the late, great Bill Shoemaker.
But the race has fallen on hard times. In 2003, the race was downgraded from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2, losing its place as the longest Grade 1 in North America. It was subsequently won two years in a row by a horse who took at least 11 tries to break his maiden in T.H. Approval. The field sizes have shrunk and some of the luster is gone. This year brings a horse who might be able to bring some of the credibility to this race in Bourbon Bay. He is looking to be the first horse to sweep the turf distance series at Santa Anita (San Luis Obispo, San Luis Rey and San Juan Capistrano) since Kotashaan in 1993. Will he do it? He has a great shot to, but must hold off several multiple graded stakes placed horses, including a Dermot Weld shipper in Princess Taylor, who last race in Dubai.
As the Santa Anita meet winds down to a close, let us not forget the past and how this race once was an event to mark on the calendar, not just a reminder of what was great.
To get you in the mood, here is the 1993 San Juan Capistrano, featuring Kotashaan and Bien Bien.