The Santa Anita Handicap is a race that rewards the complete package in a horse, which is why it presents an opening for Gift Box to find the winner’s circle.
After vanquishing McKinzie with one of the best stretch duels of any 2019 race in last year’s edition, Gift Box already knows how to find it. And should Gift Box repeat as winner of Saturday’s Santa Anita Handicap, he’ll join some elite company among multiple winners of one of America’s oldest races for older horses.
The “Big ‘Cap,” as it’s commonly known, dates to 1935, when it became the first “Hundred Grander” in a Depression era when that was serious money. Saturday’s 1 ¼-mile race, the 83rd edition, offers a $600,000 purse. That’s modest by today’s Grade 1 standards and modest for a race of this pedigree.
Senior Success Story
But there’s nothing modest about the company 7-year-old Gift Box seeks to join should he repeat. Only four horses have won multiple Big ‘Caps: the incomparable John Henry (1981-82), Milwaukee Brew (2002-03), Lava Man (2006-07) and most recently, Game On Dude (2011, 2013-14), the only three-time champion.
Nor is there anything modest about Gift Box’s resume. The John Sadler trainee has won or finished second in nine of his last 10 starts and has hit the board 14 times in 18 starts, including six victories. That explains the $1.12 million in career earnings.
It also explains a 2019 season that included that Big ‘Cap victory, a second at the Gold Cup at Santa Anita and a victory in his last start – the Grade 2 San Antonio on Santa Anita’s opening day Dec. 28. Gift Box also finished fourth at the Grade 2 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs.
Sadler, meanwhile, is seeking his unprecedented third consecutive Big ‘Cap. He won the 2018 race with Accelerate.
But it only tells part of Gift Box’s story. Here is the classic example of a horse getting better with age. Originally an Eastern horse trained by Chad Brown, Gift Box was purchased by Hronis Racing as a 5-year-old in 2018.
To say this kind of purchase doesn’t happen often is an understatement. Most horses are purchased as yearlings (1-year-olds) or 2-year-olds. But Sadler saw something in Gift Box – partly because he trained Gift Box’s sire, Twirling Candy. So he urged Kosta and Pete Hronis, the brothers behind Hronis Racing, to make the deal.
“What made it possible is I’ve got owners that support me and let me think out of the box,” Sadler told John Cherwa of the Los Angeles Times. “If you were to propose a 5-year-old to most owners, they would look at you cross-eyed. Sometimes you take a chance and it works. It takes a little creativity.”
That creativity immediately paid dividends. Gift Box won his first two races under Sadler’s tutelage: the 2018 San Antonio and last year’s Big ‘Cap. His 2019 San Antonio victory came after a six-month layoff following the Foster: a four-length, gate-to-wire dominance that displayed many of Gift Box’s skills. He can set the pace, he can stalk if need be and he can finish with a flourish.
The versatility in running styles not only gives Sadler and jockey Joel Rosario options aplenty, but also illustrates the beauty of seeing an older horse hit his prime at a time when most of his contemporaries are past theirs.
Santa Anita Handicap Morning Line
- Multiplier 20/1
- Two Thirty Five 12/1
- Brown Storm 20/1
- Gift Box 6/5
- Midcourt 2/1
- Combatant 12/1
- Hofburg 6/1
- Endorsed 6/1