On February 23rd, 1935, a resounding bugle call signaled the start of the inaugural Santa Anita Handicap. The atmosphere was surreal. In the midst of the Great Depression, two-month-old Santa Anita Racetrack had dangled the richest purse in turf history for its signature handicap. Unsurprisingly, it attracted a star-studded list of entrants. Equipoise– a six-time champion and future Hall of Famer– was set to make the final start of his career in the event. Additionally, the race would feature Head Play, a winner of the Preakness Stakes who had been involved in the infamous “Fighting Finish” of the 1933 Kentucky Derby. The Handicap even enticed the handlers of Twenty Grand– the 1931 Horse of the Year who hadn’t raced since 1932– to bring their champion out of retirement. Distracted by the presence of these greats, only a handful of spectators noticed one of the event’s most unassuming runners: a seven-year-old ex-steeplechaser named Azucar.
The longshot gelding’s journey to the Santa Anita Handicap had been far more complicated than that of his fellow competitors. Soon after being foaled in Ireland, Azucar was shipped to England to begin his career. Apparently, his racing prospects were fairly good. While neither of his parents achieved much on the racetrack, Azucar– whose name translates to “sugar” in Spanish– was closely related to a brilliant English runner named The Tetrarch. After being mockingly nicknamed “The Rocking Horse” because of his unusual coat, The Tetrarch had proceeded to rack up seven wins over the course of his undefeated two-year-old season. His accomplishments earned him divisional championship honors and convinced his erstwhile detractors to rename him “The Spotted Wonder.” Although an injury forced him into retirement after his juvenile season, The Tetrarch would ultimately be recognized as “Britain’s best Two-Year-Old of the 20th Century.”
Azucar’s early career was rather unspectacular. During his two-year-old season, he annexed the Gosforth Park Biennial Stakes and placed in a handful of other races. The following year, Azucar came third in Alexandra Park’s London Cup. After two seasons of racing, his lifetime earnings totaled a paltry £703. Despite these decidedly lackluster beginnings, Azucar managed to catch the eye of the legendary Joseph E. Widener. An American millionaire, art collector, and horse enthusiast, Widener was currently serving as the president of Belmont Park. He also owned a prominent racing stable that would eventually produce twenty-six champions– twelve of whom were steeplechasers. Evidently, the esteemed horseman saw something in Azucar. Sometime during 1931, he purchased the gelding and imported him to the United States.
The change in scenery initially did little to spark Azucar. As a four-year-old, the gelding started four times and earned one win. During his fourth season on the racetrack, however, Azucar finally started to come into his own. On June 2nd, 1933, he overcame a 138-pound impost to capture the prestigious Charles L. Appleton Memorial Cup. Three months later, the gelding was entered– along with a stablemate named Arc Light– into Belmont Park’s Broad Hollow Steeplechase Handicap. Several hours before the event, a rainstorm drenched the track. “[The] Lady of the Skies wept copiously yesterday,” one journalist remarked. “And her tears not only cost the treasury of Belmont Park about $20,000, but completely changed the complexion of the results. Mud horses did their strut well and effectively.” Sadly, both Azucar and his stablemate struggled to overcome the unforgiving conditions. “Azucar and Arc Light had not been to the races for a long time,” a witness commented, “and they raced poorly– as though the game was new to them. It may have been that the slippery, soft turf was not relished by them. Anyhow, they raced far below their form.” In a testament to his tenacity, Azucar still managed to finish a distant second. The gelding ultimately closed his 1933 campaign with a seven-length win in Laurel Park’s Middleburg Purse.
Exactly one year after capturing the 1933 Charles L. Appleton Memorial Cup, Azucar contested the two-mile Corinthian Steeplechase Handicap. From the outset, it was clear that the gelding “was in a class by himself.” Azucar broke alertly, charged to the front, and never relinquished the lead. He streaked under the wire to win by four lengths. Moreover, his two-mile time– 3:42-4/5– was the fastest of the meeting.
Around that time, a young horseman named Frederick Alger developed an interest in Azucar. A prominent politician and diplomat, Alger would later serve as the United States Ambassador to Belgium. During the 1930s, he was also deeply involved in thoroughbred racing. In the August of 1934, Alger approached Joseph Widener with an offer to buy Azucar. Widener quickly agreed to sell the gelding for $8,000.
As it transpired, the change in ownership would be responsible for catapulting Azucar to a permanent place in racing lore. Although Alger had purchased the gelding with the intention of running him in the 1935 Grand National, he discovered that Azucar’s previous handlers hadn’t capitalized on his blinding speed. Almost immediately, the gelding’s new trainer, Matthew Brady, noticed that he frequently outran workmates on level ground– indicating that he was better suited to flat racing. Alger took the plunge. Just two weeks after acquiring Azucar, the owner entered him into a $1,000 allowance race. The result wasn’t promising. Despite being “under pressure throughout,” Azucar started sluggishly, chased the leaders in fourth, and dropped back to finish an uninspiring fifth. Three days later, the gelding strode to the post for another one-mile race. At first, it seemed that he would repeat his disappointing performance; Azucar broke badly and proceeded to fall seven lengths behind the pace. Midway through the final turn, he accelerated unexpectedly and began to move up “with determination.” With a courageous drive, he scorched past the leaders and drew away to win effortlessly. His victory margin was five lengths.
After Azucar proved himself in allowance company, Alger began bumping him up in class. On September 7th, the gelding uncorked another dazzling stretch drive to capture a minor handicap event. One month after embarking on a career as a flat racer, Azucar appeared in the lucrative Havre de Grace Handicap– where he would compete against the indomitable Discovery. To the surprise of everyone present, the gelding outran Discovery and missed winning by a nose. Several weeks later, he annexed the $7,500 Washington Handicap– tying the track record in the process– despite lugging the heaviest impost in the field. Even more importantly, his victory made him the first horse of the season to capture a stakes race as both a steeplechaser and a flat runner. Over the course of his momentous season, Azucar triumphed five times and racked up $14,280. Impressed by the gelding’s startling transformation, Alger opted to send his rising star west to the newly-opened Santa Anita Racetrack.
Azucar made his 1935 debut in Santa Anita’s New Year Stakes. Piloted by master reinsman George Woolf, the gelding sped to an authoritative victory– breaking the track record. Five weeks later, Azucar finished third in the San Antonio Stakes.
After witnessing these outstanding performances, Alger felt that Azucar was prepared to compete in the most anticipated event of the season: the Santa Anita Handicap. Billed as the richest race in history, the Handicap boasted a $100,000 purse– a staggering sum in Depression-era America. By comparison, the average cost of a new house in 1935 was slightly over $4,000. Understandably, the Santa Anita Handicap immediately captured the imaginations of countless Americans. It also drew one of the most challenging fields in racing history.
On race day, over 45,000 enthusiastic spectators– including stars such as Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire– swamped Santa Anita. Despite Azucar’s recent accomplishments, the crowd still installed him as a relative longshot.
[Video: Watch the 1935 Santa Anita Handicap]
It took just over two minutes for the gelding to change their minds. At the break, Azucar dropped towards the back of the pack as the leaders “battled their hearts out,” against a thirty-mile-per-hour headwind. Behind them, Azucar began to thread his way through the dense pack of horses as he fought to gain ground. With half a mile to go, he motored into fourth and took aim at the front runners. As soon as the gelding hit the homestretch, he accelerated, pulled alongside the leaders, and surged into the lead. In front of the roaring crowd, he drew away to triumph by two lengths. Azucar’s final time– 2:02-1/5– shattered the track mark and narrowly missed the world record. Apparently, he wasn’t simply content to bask in his triumph. When Azucar was led into the winner’s circle, the sea of clamorous spectators surrounding the gelding quickly overwhelmed him. Before anyone could react, he spooked. He knocked his jockey aside, trampled the nearby NBC radio wire– cutting off the national broadcast– and took off with a groom clinging desperately to his lead rope. Dragging the stable hand behind him, Azucar sprinted for nearly two hundred yards before finally being caught by an outrider. To the crowd’s relief, the gelding– and his unfortunate groom– emerged unscathed.
After his stunning victory in the Santa Anita, Azucar’s career wound down. In a match race with Discovery later that year, the gelding faltered and lost by thirty lengths. Although he managed to place in several stakes races, the remainder of his season was largely disappointing. During 1936, Azucar eked out some good efforts en route to a fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Handicap. Impressively, the tenacious gelding even managed to capture the Michigan Handicap at the age of nine. It was the last race he ever won. The following year– after Azucar finished out of the money in a minor steeplechase– Alger finally decided to retire him. Over a seven-year, sixty-six-start career, the gelding triumphed fourteen times and earned slightly more than $160,000. More significantly, however, Azucar’s story– as well as his legacy as the improbable winner of the first Santa Anita Handicap– continues to endure to this day.
[Video: Watch Azucar win the 1935 Santa Anita Handicap]
A special thank you to Andrew Hanna for this great guest post!
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