Trainer John Shirreffs is notorious for sneaking away after a big win and putting all the attention on everyone else connected to the horse. But Saturday was different. It took modest prodding, but there he was in the winner’s circle with Express Train after winning his first Santa Anita Handicap.
“Oh, yeah, this is the Santa Anita Handicap,” Shirreffs said. “You don’t have to ask me twice. … I’m really over the top about [winning] it. I’ve been it a few times and never won. Seabiscuit won this race. It’s one of those icon races.”
Seabiscuit won in 1940 by about two lengths. It wasn’t so easy for Express Train, who looked as if he had the race won down the stretch but a game Warrant kept coming back on the 5-year-old horse. In the final strides, Express Train got just enough in front to win the Grade 1 $650,000 race by a head.
“Yeah, I was nervous [down the stretch],” said the 76-year-old Shirreffs, who has been a trainer for more than four decades.
The 1¼-mile race unfolded with American Theorem going to the lead. Victor Espinoza, aboard Express Train, was content to sit in fourth. Coming off the clubhouse turn, he moved up a little on the outside down the backstretch until entering the far turn where he came even with Warrant. Heading into the homestretch it looked as if Express Train would take command, but Warrant would not give in and continued to fight until the wire.
“He just gave me a little bit of a hard time at the end to get me excited and pump up my muscles,” Espinoza said. “I thought it was an exciting race.”
Express Train paid $4.20, $2.60 and $2.10. Warrant was second and then it was nine lengths back to the rest of the field starting with Stilleto Boy, Spielberg, Why Why Paul Why, American Theorem and Soy Tapatio.
It was Express Train’s third straight win after winning the San Pasqual and San Antonio. The winning returned when Shirreffs made a rider switch to Espinoza.
“Victor is a very talented rider and he’s a big race rider and he doesn’t make mistakes,” Shirreffs said. “All those things play a factor because when you’re on a horse and you’re in a race, you don’t have a lot of time to think about what to do. You have to be somewhat instinctive and somewhat experienced. He blends the two in just the right combination.”
Shirreffs is unsure what race is next for Express Train, although the fact he won a Grade 1 makes him a much more attractive stallion prospect and could spell the end of his racing career at year’s end.
With temperatures in the low 50s and an occasional drizzle, the on-track crowd was small for Big ‘Cap Day at 12,187. But among those in attendance was winning owner Lee Searing, who also grasped the significance of Shirreffs’ first Big ‘Cap win.
“The first thought that came into my mind when they said that John Shirreffs had never won a Santa Anita Handicap is [getting that win for John came] before me or my family,” Searing said. “To own a horse like this and win a Santa Anita Handicap, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
That seemed to be a common sentiment Saturday.