Santa Anita Park, which opened on Christmas Day, 1934 and instantly established itself as one a great Thoroughbred venue, plans to continue that rich heritage when it ushers in its 72nd season of world-class racing this Friday, the day after Christmas, its traditional opening day.
Highlighting the initial program is the 57th running of the Grade I Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs, an event that has been won in the past by equine luminaries such as Determine, Round Table, Native Diver, Buckpasser, Damascus, Ancient Title, Spectacular Bid, Precisionist and Ferdinand.
“We’re optimistic about the meet,” said Santa Anita Director of Racing Mike Harlow. “The horse population looks good, because the majority of trainers have quite a few horses they’ve been planning to run. The economy has taken its toll almost everywhere, but Santa Anita has a bit brighter outlook. If we put the quality on the race track, hopefully, fans will bet.
“Some things are beyond our control, but we will make the effort to attract more people to the track. Our ultimate goal is to improve the handle. We hope to present quality and competitive racing. Despite the problem we had with the race track last meet, we put together a pretty good meet.
“At Oak Tree, we averaged nine horses a race, which is unheard of recently. No one’s been over 8.5 or 8.6, so hopefully we’ll continue with that trend.”
The field for the Malibu, which goes as race eight on a nine-race program: Into Mischief, Victor Espinoza, 119; Colonel John, Garrett Gomez, 123; Bob Black Jack, David Flores, 119; Golden Spikes, Joel Rosario, 123; Nownownow, Joe Talamo, 115; Guns on the Table, Rafael Bejarano, 117; and Georgie Boy, Edgar Prado, 119.
In other opening day news:
The ever-popular Santa Anita wall calendar will be given away to all fans with paid admission while supplies last. The 2009 calendar offers handicapping tips from a coterie of experts.
All fans in attendance will receive a bonus day package of four free passes with each
paid admission. All general admission and clubhouse attendees will receive two free passes to the festive Sunshine Millions program on Jan. 24 and two additional free passes good any day throughout the 84-day winter/spring meet.
Fans will also have an opportunity to sign up for Santa Anita’s $10,000 Strub Series handicapping contest. It’s free, and in order to play, fans must compete on opening day in order to qualify for the contest’s second round on Jan. 17. The third and final round will take place on Feb. 7.
The world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales will perform on opening day.
First post time is 12 noon. Admission gates open at 10 a.m.
RAIN NO PROBLEM FOR PRO-RIDE TRACK
Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride main track responded well to light rain early Monday, and track superintendent Richard Tedesco expressed confidence it would continue to do so despite the forecast of more wet weather over the next few days.
“We had one-tenth to one-quarter of inch as of around 10 this morning,” Tedesco said Monday. “The track has handled it very well and I’ve had good remarks from horsemen. Tuesday is expected to be dry, but the bulk of rain from this storm, about a half-inch, is forecast for Wednesday and Thursday.”
GRADE I WINNER COLONEL JOHN SET FOR MALIBU
Trainer Eoin Harty is confident Colonel John will run well in the Malibu Stakes at seven furlongs on opening day. Winner of the Grade I Santa Anita Derby and the Grade I Travers Stakes earlier this year, Colonel John has not run since he finished sixth to Ravens Pass in the 1 ¼-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic at Oak Tree on Oct. 25.
“The Malibu is always a strong race,” Harty said. “But Colonel John is ready and I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for him.”
Harty said if all goes well, Colonel John would continue on in the second leg of the Strub Series, the Grade II San Fernando Stakes exclusively for 4-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on Jan. 17. The Grade II Strub Stakes, also restricted to 4-year-olds, completes the series next Feb. 7.
STUD CAREER FOR INTO MISCHIEF AFTER MALIBU STAKES
Win, lose or dead-heat, Into Mischief is headed to the breeding shed after he runs in the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on opening day.
“This could be his last race. There are plans for him to go to stud right after the race,” said trainer Richard Mandella of the 3-year-old son of Harlan’s Holiday, who is owned by Public Storage magnate B. Wayne Hughes.
“The colt will go to Spendthrift Farm (a world-renowned facility in Lexington, Ky., owned by Hughes),” Mandella continued. “I have no idea (what his stud fee will be). Mr. Hughes lives on that farm now and he sees that pretty stallion barn with not enough horses in it, and he wants to get some in there.”
Into Mischief hasn’t raced since winning the Damascus Stakes at Oak Tree on Oct. 25. He worked four furlongs Monday in :47.80. “He ran well in the Damascus and that was at seven furlongs, so we’re coming back to try it again in the Malibu,” Mandella said. “I expect he’ll run pretty good.”
Victor Espinoza, who has ridden Into Mischief in each of the colt’s five starts, including a 13-1 upset in the Grade I CashCall Futurity last year at Hollywood Park, is back aboard for the Malibu.
“He always gives his best,” said Espinoza, Santa Anita’s riding champion in 2003-04 with 89 victories, and co-leader in 2006-07 with 83 wins. “He’s got a big heart. He’s very consistent and wants to run. I worked him seven-eighths a few days ago and he went unbelievable.”
Espinoza, meanwhile, remains one of the circuit’s most dedicated riders. The 36-year-old native of Mexico City recognizes he must maintain his diligent work ethic to hold sway with the infusion of fresh competition. “I try hard every day, but each meet changes,” Espinoza said. “Hollywood is different; Del Mar is different; but I’m ready for Santa Anita. It’s a big meet and Tony and I (agent Tony Matos) are prepared for it.”
Added Matos: “For the last 10 years we’ve been among the top three riders in California and won 11 riding titles. This year was a fair year and we’re looking forward to going back on top where he’s always been. Our clients are starting to run more horses and they’re coming around, so we’re really looking forward to a great meet.
“Victor’s working hard every morning. He’s a great rider and he’s been very consistent over the l2 years that I’ve had him.”
FRANKEL, ONE SHY OF 900 CAREER WINS AT SANTA ANITA, CALLS PRO-RIDE ‘BEST’
“I think this is the best one I’ve ever seen.” So said Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel of Santa Anita’s new Pro-Ride main track, when asked his opinion of synthetic surfaces.
“Considering how much traffic it gets in the morning, it’s great,” said Frankel, Santa Anita’s career leader in victories with 899. “You can’t judge Keeneland (Polytrack), because it doesn’t get the traffic and it’s only (a meet of) three weeks. Since I’ve been at Santa Anita for this meet, I don’t know how many thousands of times horses have been over this track. I would say this track’s the best one I’ve been around so far.”
Frankel plans to enter Country Star, winner of the Grade I Hollywood Starlet last year, in Saturday’s Grade I La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs. Another Frankel La Brea nominee, Moonshine Alice, will run in the $70,000 Kalookan Queen Handicap on Dec. 31. A Florida-bred daughter of Straight Man, Moonshine Alice is owned in part by former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brad Penny and current Dodger manager Joe Torre. Moonshine Alice worked five furlongs Saturday in 1:02.40.
Frankel has high hopes for Juddmonte Farms Zambesi Sun, a Group 1 winner in Europe who is ticketed for Santa Anita’s turf marathons starting with the mile and a half San Luis Obispo Handicap next Feb. 22.
Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Ventura is scheduled to make her 2009 debut in the Grade I Santa Monica Handicap at seven furlongs on Jan. 31, Frankel said.
AVILA SKIPS MALIBU WITH GAYEGO AFTER PURCHASING THE COLT
Arkansas Derby winner Gayego was purchased for an undisclosed sum last week by trainer A.C. Avila, who will bypass the Malibu Stakes in favor of a lesser race next month.
“Paulo (Gayego’s former trainer, Paulo Lobo) told me he didn’t think Gayego would run well in the Malibu,” Avila said. “He was afraid he would bounce because he ran so hard last time (setting a track record for 6 ½ furlongs in winning an optional claiming race by two lengths at Hollywood Park on Nov. 30), so I’m passing the Malibu and will look for a classified allowance at Santa Anita sometime in January.”
Avila, who turned 55 on Nov. 30, would not reveal Gayego’s purchase price. “A lot,” is all he would say when asked how much he paid. “I tried to buy the horse from Day One, but his people were preoccupied with the Kentucky Derby. He has a lot of class and he ran a zero on the (Ragozin) Sheets last time.
“If he does well here, I’ll probably send him to Dubai (for the $2 million Golden Shaheen at six furlongs on the straightaway at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse on March 28, 2009).”
FREE FRIDAYS, DOLLAR MENU OFFERED AT SANTA ANITA
With the exception of opening day, fans will be admitted free to the grandstand every Friday at Santa Anita throughout the 84-day meet.
“We want our fans to know that we intend to offer them outstanding value across the board, and particularly on Fridays,” said Santa Anita President Ron Charles. “This is the most comprehensively competitive pricing schedule we’ve ever embarked upon, and we believe it’s going to be very popular with fans and provide them with a fun way to begin their weekend.”
In addition to general admission, box seating will be available free of charge Fridays on a first-come, first-served basis. Fans also will be offered a $1 menu, which includes beer, soda, hot dogs and popcorn.
FINISH LINES: Gary Stevens resumes his career as analyst for HRTV on opening day after a brief respite. The retired Hall of Fame jockey keeps racing fit by exercising horses. “I’m working horses for (Patrick) Biancone and (Jerry) Hollendorfer on a regular basis,” the 45-year-old Stevens said . . . Former National Football League star Billy Kilmer and members of his famous “Over-the-Hill Gang” including Myron Pottios and Diron Talbert, will be on hand opening day. Kilmer, 69, starred for the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins after playing college football for UCLA. The native of Azusa, California, starred in baseball, football and basketball during his athletic career at Citrus High School and was a first-team All-American football player at UCLA. The Over-the-Hill Gang was the George Allen-coached Redskins team of the early 1970s, so named due to the team’s many veteran players. The third race will be named in their honor . . . Triple Crown hopeful Brother Keith worked five furlongs on Pro-Ride Monday in 1:02.80 for Bobby Frankel, while crack sprinter In Summation, winner of this year’s El Conejo Handicap, went the same distance in 1:01.20 for Christophe Clement . . . Probable for Sunday’s Grade II San Gabriel Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on turf: Becrux, Mike Smith; Ferneley, Victor Espinoza; Porfido, David Flores; and Proudinsky, Garrett Gomez . . . Mike McCarthy, assistant to Todd Pletcher, reports he has 20 head at Hollywood Park preparing for the Santa Anita meet. “Todd is headquartered in Florida, but we plan to participate in the stakes program here,” McCarthy said.