Gold Cup at Santa Anita: Enduring through the decades

Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, with Bill Shoemaker aboard, wins the 1956 Gold Cup at Hollywood Park. AP Photo.

Back in 1979, beloved Triple Crown winner Affirmed added the G1 Hollywood Gold Cup to his resume in unforgettable fashion, prevailing after a long stretch duel and setting a new all-time earnings record.

While more recent Triple Crown winner American Pharoah will only be appearing on the Gold Cup card via a parade in his honor, the classic 10 furlong contest continues to showcase some of the best older horses in training each year. What is now known as the Gold Cup at Santa Anita has undergone recent purse and venue changes, but it endures as a marquee part of the racing calendar.

Although the 2015 renewal of the Gold Cup will be the 76th edition of the race, it is only the second since it moved to Santa Anita following the closure of Hollywood Park in 2013. Seabiscuit, who is immortalized in bronze in the Santa Anita paddock, won the inaugural running in 1938, back when the purse was $55,000. It was the only time Seabiscuit graced the now defunct Inglewood oval with his presence 

Thirteen years after Seabiscuit made the Gold Cup an instant classic, the mighty Triple Crown winner Citation tried the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup. By then, the purse had been raised to $137,000. Citation’s brilliant four-length victory made him the first horse to surpass the $1 million earnings milestone, and capped a career that saw him win 32 of 45 starts. 

After Citation, the biggest names in the sport regularly lined up for a shot at the Gold Cup. Two Lea made it consecutive wins for the famed Calumet Farm when that Hall of Fame mare defeated males in 1952. She became the second of only three mares to ever win the race.

In 1956, the wickedly fast Kentucky Derby winner Swaps stormed his way to a scorching track record of 1:58.60, which was an entire second faster than the previous record. Just one year later, Round Table equaled the record in front of a crowd of 54,600, becoming the first 3-year-old to defeat elders in the race. Both Swaps and Round Table are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, as is Gallant Man, who scored in 1958. The New York-shipper, who had won both the Belmont and Travers Stakes the year before, enjoyed his stay in the Golden State so much that he stayed to win the Sunset Handicap on Hollywood Park’s grass course just 10 days later.

Native Diver became the first of two three-time Gold Cup winners when he swept the race from 1965 through 1967. Buster Millerick’s colt made 37 of his 81 starts winning ones, amassing over $1 million in earnings the hard way. Native Diver was buried in the paddock at Hollywood Park, but was carefully exhumed and moved to Del Mar after the track was closed. 

After racing in the G1 Hollywood Futurity as a juvenile, eventual Kentucky Derby victor Ferdinand returned to Hollywood Park for the Gold Cup in 1987. The chestnut colt, carefully conditioned by Charlie Whittingham, won the race, and then came back to Hollywood again to defeat fellow Derby winner Alysheba in a memorable renewal of the G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic five months later. Both Ferdinand and Alysheba went to the post in the 1988 Gold Cup, but their renewed rivalry gave way to rising star Cutlass Reality, who defeated them both on his way to winning five straight races and seven of nine from May through December. 

In an effort to lure the best horses in the country away from their comfort zones in Kentucky, Maryland, and New York, track officials raised the purse for the Gold Cup to $1 million in 1995. It worked, with a star studded field of G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Concern, 1993 Gold Cup hero Best Pal, and G1 Pacific Classic victor Tinners Way lining up in the gate, but they all had to bend to the Eastern juggernaut Cigar, who cruised home by 3 ½ lengths. The victory was the ninth during Cigar’s streak of 16 wins; the Hall of Famer went on to earn $9,999,815 in his career.

The purse stayed at $1 million when G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Skip Away and then G1 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion Real Quiet won in 1998 and 1999. In 2001, however, the purse was lowered to $750,000, ending California’s brief run as the only state with a trio of $1 million races for older horses: the Santa Anita Handicap at Santa Anita, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and Del Mar’s Pacific Classic. 

In recent years, no older male has excited California racing fans more than Lava Man, the burly dark bay California-bred who became only the second horse to win three consecutive Hollywood Gold Cups. Lava Man won his first in 2005, romping home by 8 ¾ lengths. In both 2006 and 2007 he won by just a nose. The tag outside his stall was rewritten to say “Tres Copa de Oro” in honor of his achievement, and to deter wandering fans that wanted to visit the horse. 

In 2009, the year that the gelding Rail Trip won, the purse was reduced to $700,000, and it was reduced again in 2010 to $500,000. There was a lot of talk about whether the Gold Cup would survive the move from Hollywood Park to Santa Anita in 2014 – many of the closed track’s iconic stakes races didn’t make it onto the new schedule – but it did, keeping its half-a-million-dollar purse and mile-and-one-quarter distance with a name tweak to Gold Cup at Santa Anita.

In the Gold Cup’s first year in its new home, Game On Dude was the heavy favorite, having won the last two Gold Cups at Hollywood Park. However, 14-1 shot Majestic Harbor made his 23rd career start count as he soared home 6 ¼ lengths in front. Game On Dude could do no better than fourth, and was retired a few months later. 

Although American Pharoah has most likely wrapped up the title of Eclipse Horse of the Year, the Gold Cup still has championship implications. It is part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series and a “Win and You’re In” for the $5 million Classic, to be run at Keeneland Racecourse on Oct. 31. The Gold Cup will be televised on NBC Sports Network. With older male division standouts such as Shared Belief and California Chrome currently on the sidelines, and New York-based leaders Honor Code and Tonalist opting to stay home with an eye on the summer meet at Saratoga, the Gold Cup is ripe to produce a new star.

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