Having turned just 12 years old a few hours earlier that day, I remember the race as if it were yesterday. A crowd of over 70,000 people arrived at Santa Anita Park and jammed themselves into whatever corner of the grandstand they could find.
Long before the days of simulcast wagering and Internet live streaming, which have taken much of the luster out of the live, on-track product, there was a sense of urgency and anticipation as John Henry came onto the track, toting a highweight of 130 pounds, the majority of which was in the form of jockey Bill Shoemaker.
John Henry was already a super horse at the time of the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap. His story, much like the tale of the fabled Seabiscuit, started as that of a humble horse, unwanted and disregarded by many in the early stages of his career. It wasn't until John Henry was in the hands of master trainer Ron McAnally that his career began to turn around.
By the time John Henry walked into the gate as the overwhelming favorite in the 1982 "Big 'Cap," he already had been voted as the Eclipse Award-winning champion turf horse in 1980 and 1981, champion horse of the year in 1981 having won both the Santa Anita Handicap and the Arlington Million — at that time the richest races in the world — in the same year and was the richest racehorse on the planet.
The 1982 Santa Anita Handicap turned into a classic stretch duel between John Henry and the French invader Perrault under rider Laffit Pincay. The two separated from the field at the head of the lane and battled for nearly a furlong to the finish line.
Perrault won the battle, getting to the finish line a nose in front of John Henry. A piercing, thunderous ovation rained down on the champion athletes as they crossed the wire in one of the most exhilarating equine battles you'd ever been witness to.
Then the stewards got involved. It turned out that, while in the course of battle, Perrault veered out while taking the lead, forcing John Henry to alter course just enough that the stewards ruled a disqualification was in order, thus moving John Henry to the winner's spot, delighting the many in attendance on that fateful day, including this very impressionable 12-year-old.
John Henry retired from racing two years later. A stakes winner 30 times in his career, he left the game with earnings topping $6.5 million. He was a seven-time Eclipse Award winner, and is the only thoroughbred in history to win the Horse of the Year title twice, but not in consecutive years.
I can't exactly call this year's version of the Santa Anita Handicap, being run Saturday, a classic. And Lava Man, a fine racehorse in his own right, is at best a poor man's version of John Henry.
Lava Man appears to be a standout in the field as the only runner carrying more than 120 pounds. A winner of more than $4 million, Lava Man's eight rivals combined haven't earned that much. A crowd of barely 30,000 will be on hand at one of the most breathtaking racetracks in the country, with countless others watching the race on television monitors and computer screens across the world when the Santa Anita Handicap goes postward.
The Big Cap itself isn't as classic a race as it was in years past. With international racing being able to offer larger purses than before, the $1 million race is almost an afterthought when compared to the $6 million Dubai World Cup, or the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. The sheen of the race has been dulled a bit in recent years, but for many, the race still holds a place in their hearts.
The advertising campaign for the race still holds as true as it did 25 years ago. If you go to the races only one day a year, it's Big Cap Day at Santa Anita.
Technology is a wonderful thing, and while racing has broadened its world-wide appeal and the sport is available to millions more than it used to be, there still will be a small piece of me standing in a corner of the clubhouse, shouting at the top of my pre-teenage lungs, bumping into the shoulders and outstretched arms of a packed racetrack watching the race of a lifetime.
Steve Bortstein is a radio talk show host and professional handicapper. Bortstein hosts "First Sports" weekday mornings at 7 and "The Fast Track" weekend mornings at 8 on FOX Sports New Mexico, AM1340. Bortstein is also the paddock show host during the live racing season at SunRay Park and Casino.