Win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and you immediately enter the discussion of the country’s best older horses. Win the 1 ¼-mile “Big ‘Cap” and you join a club featuring the likes of Seabiscuit, Hill Rise, Ack Ack, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry (twice), Alysheba, Best Pal, Tiznow, Game on Dude (three times), Shared Belief and Accelerate.

Express Train-Big 'Cap
Express Train is the 8/5 favorite to win his first Grade 1 in Saturday’s Santa Anita Handicap. (Image: Benoit Photo)

Win the Santa Anita Handicap and your stock in November’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland go into bullish territory. And finally, win the Santa Anita Handicap and your bona-fides as a legitimate horse or stallion live forever.

The Santa Anita Handicap headlines one of the biggest days of racing at Santa Anita. It is one of three Grade 1 stakes and six graded stakes on the day’s card. It is one of the West Coast’s top three events for older horses, along with the Hollywood Gold Cup in May and August’s Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

And when discussing this year’s Big ‘Cap, matters start with a horse who nearly won last year’s Big ‘Cap: 8/5 morning-line favorite Express Train. We last saw the 5-year-old Union Rags progeny easily capture the Grade 2 San Pasqual at Santa Anita by 3 ¼ lengths a month ago. But it was last year’s Big ‘Cap that sticks in the minds of many, including trainer John Shirreffs.

Express Train roars in with unfinished business

That was Express Train’s near-miss in this event. He led with a sixteenth to go, only to have Idol roar up on the outside, reel him in and snatch the race. Add in his sixth as the 2/1 favorite in the 1 ¼-mile Pacific Classic last August and Express Train must prove he can conquer 10 furlongs. To date, he is 0-for-3 at 1 ¼ miles.

Based on his pressing finish in the San Pasqual, where he reeled in Eight Rings at the quarter pole and threw aside a late challenge from Law Professor Shirreffs doesn’t share those doubts. Especially since Express Train has a 3-3-2 record in nine Santa Anita races.

“I think this was a little bit more difficult for him,” Shirreffs told reporters after the San Pasqual, Express Train’s second consecutive win in that race. “There was a lot going on early with the fast pace. … Nobody got to relax because (American Theorem) came up on the outside and wanted to force the pace, so it was do or die time then. We’re looking forward to the Big ‘Cap.”

Santa Anita Handicap can put Express Train into seven figures

A victory or high finish in the $650,000 race and Express Train joins the millionaire ranks. He comes in with a 6-4-3 win and $935,800 in 16 starts.

To do that, he’s got to get past 12/1 American Theorem, but more pressing to Express Train’s chances are Stilleto Boy (5/2). He comes in off a strong third in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at 26/1, 4 ½ lengths behind the incomparable Life Is Good. Nobody’s throwing the 4-year-old gelding’s show there, especially the 104 Beyer Speed Figure that came with it. That’s the best last-out Beyer in this field.

Make no mistake, Stilleto Boy wasn’t a factor there, nor was he in the Malibu Stakes (third to Flightline), nor the Breeders’ Cup Classic (fifth to Knicks Go). He’s the proverbial scrappy stalker, in the mix in most of his starts, as his 2-3-5 record in 13 starts and $833,175 in earnings attest. But there are no Life Is Goods, Knicks Gos or Flightlines in this field.

Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap/Santa Anita Park

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Spielberg, 8/1 (Abel Cedillo/Bob Baffert)
  2. Why Why Paul Why, 6/1 (Juan Hernandez/Michael McCarthy)
  3. Warrant, 4/1 (Flavien Prat/Brad Cox)
  4. Soy Tapatio, 20/1 (Diego Herrera/Doug O’Neill)
  5. American Theorem, 12/1 (Mike Smith/ George) Papaprodromou)
  6. Express Train, 8/5 (Victor Espinoza/John Shirreffs)
  7. Kiss Today Goodbye, SCR
  8. Stilletto Boy, 5/2 (John Velazquez/Ed Moger Jr.)

Two others to watch are Warrant (4/1) and the ever-present Spielberg (8/1). Warrant arrives at Santa Anita off his third-place finish to Mandaloun in January’s Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes. The 4-year-old Constitution progeny has one stakes win to his name: the Grade 3 Oklahoma Derby last September at Remington Park. With Brad Cox calling the training shots and Santa Anita’s leading jockey, Flavien Prat, in the irons, this stalker can snatch this if Express Train can’t handle 10 furlongs or Stilleto Boy’s form disappears.

As for Spielberg (8/1), he needs to find his 2-year-old form to be a factor here. Not the fourth by 6 ½ lengths to Express Train in the San Pasqual, although he did win a mile allowance by three lengths here in January. The one-time wondercolt tries 1 ¼ miles for the first time, seeking his fourth career win and Bob Baffert’s sixth Big ‘Cap score. The Hall of Fame trainer hasn’t won this race since Game on Dude won his third in 2014.