Rain or shine, good times or bad, there is only one Santa Anita Park. Embarking on its 72nd season of racing Friday, the historic track has been home to legions of stars, equine and athletic, surviving World War II and natural disasters since opening on Christmas Day, 1934.

In short, the winter/spring meet is one racing fans anticipate. It’s a new beginning, with quality horses, important races and seemingly limitless opportunities to enjoy them in one of the most scenic settings in all of sports, the San Gabriel Mountains serving as a picturesque backdrop.

It is with that in mind that Santa Anita President Ron Charles, in the face of an economic downturn, took a positive stance for the 84-day campaign that runs through April 19.

“I’m an optimist and I remain cautiously optimistic about our upcoming meet,” said Charles, himself a long-time Thoroughbred owner. “I think it’s important that we try to recapture some of the momentum we were able to establish from the Breeders’ Cup (at Oak Tree last Oct. 24-25). So far, the response from horsemen has been very positive and we’re getting a great deal of interest about our opening day.”

Supporting that statement is the fact that 103 horses were entered for Friday’s nine-race program, an average of 11.4 per race.

“Realistically, it’s impossible not to be wary when looking at the current financial conditions nationally, internationally, and in all of gaming,” Charles said, adding, “but Santa Anita does hold a special place in racing. We consider it to be one of the premier meets in the country, if not the premier meet. Our focus continues to try and bring new and seasonal race fans back to the live racing venue.

“The only way we’re going to stimulate interest and create new fans is to have them come to Santa Anita and experience the thrill of live racing.

“We’ve had considerable interest from out of state owners and trainers requesting stalls and telling us they’d like to come to Santa Anita,” Charles said in explaining the encouraging initial influx. “Saturdays and Sundays traditionally have always been pretty strong and well attended, but we’re trying to create an additional strong day on Fridays by offering free admission and free box seats on a first-come basis. We’ll also have a handicapping contest with $10,000 in prize money.

“One thing is certain: we’re not going to attract new fans through our OTB (off track betting) sites or ADW (advance deposit wagering). The only way we’re going to create new racing fans is to get them here and experience live racing. That’s why our focus is on trying to bring new people out.”


THE FUTURE IS LATERLATERLATER FOR NOWNOWNOW IN THE MALIBU

For Nownownow, the future is Laterlaterlater, trainer Patrick Biancone says.

The winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Monmouth Park in 2007, Nownownow is reunited with Biancone for Friday’s Grade I Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs on Pro-Ride. Jason Orman trained the son Whywhywhy while Biancone served a one-year suspension.

“I’ve had the horse back for about a month,” Biancone said. “I know the Malibu is a tough race and he may be a bit short, but he’s going to improve very much off this race. We’ll just take a shot. If he gets second, we’ll be very happy . . . We’re preparing for the Strub (at 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 7), but this is the first step. He’ll be more competitive in the Strub.”

Nownownow will be returning to a synthetic surface for the first time since running second in his maiden start at Keeneland on April 6, 2007. After two subsequent starts on Churchill Downs’ traditional dirt track, Nownownow’s last eight races have been on turf.

In other Malibu news:

Bob Baffert admits “it’s a little step up--like a gigantic one,” for Guns On the Table, a son of Carson City, “but he’s training well.” In eight starts, Guns On the Table has two seconds in lesser stakes, the Barretts Juvenile and the Jack Goodman last year. “John and Anita (Connelly, who own the colt) named him after an episode with their grandson,” said Baffert, who is seeking his first Malibu win.

“They gave him a western gun set and he came in one day and told his grandfather, ‘I’m going to put my guns on the table,’ and that’s how they got the name.”

Eoin Harty took a fatalistic approach to Colonel John drawing post position No. 2: “It is what it is,” the trainer said.

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 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.


PERIBAN EYES SIR BEAUFORT VICTORY WITH PISTOL PETE AFLEET

Jorge Periban hopes to get his first victory with Pistol Pete Afleet since claiming him for $80,000 when the son of Northern Afleet runs in Friday’s Grade III Sir Beaufort Stakes for 3-year-olds scheduled at one mile on turf.

Pistol Pete Afleet was second in the restricted War Chant Stakes on Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track last out on Nov. 27, his seventh race since Periban’s claim.

“He had an accident in the Alydar Stakes last May right after I claimed him,” Periban said, explaining why the colt weakened to finish sixth in the 1 1/8-mile race after setting the pace. “The horse jumped the rail after the race. That’s why I had to wait two months for his next start (Aug. 2 at Del Mar).”

Aaron Gryder reunites with Pistol Pete Afleet in the Sir Beaufort, replacing Luis Contreras, who is riding in New Mexico. Contreras had ridden Pistol Pete Afleet in his last five races.


MACHOWSKY SEEKS RETURN TO FORM FOR KELLY LEAK IN EDDIE LOGAN

Kelly Leak has one disappointing effort in four career starts, but Mike Machowsky readily draws a line through that race, the Grade I Del Mar Futurity last Sept. 3 in which the 2-year-old colt finished 10th after leading briefly.

“He was just too rank and keen, and he needs to make one run,” the trainer said in explaining the Futurity effort.

Kelly Leak won his maiden race, then was disqualified from first to fourth in the Grade II Best Pal Stakes before the Futurity. The Florida-bred son of Runaway Groom came back to finish second by a nose in an optional claiming race on turf at Hollywood Park Dec. 4.

Next up: Saturday’s $70,000 Eddie Logan Stakes scheduled for one mile on turf.

“He ran really good in his last race,” Machowsky said. “He broke from the eight hole and he never got out of the eight hole the whole race. He should run well if Victor (Espinoza) can wriggle him back and make one run. That’s his best style.”

The field for the Eddie Logan, named for Santa Anita’s legendary 97-year-old shoe shine man, who has been at every Santa Anita meet since the track opened on Christmas Day, 1934: Back At You, Garrett Gomez, 116; Miguel’s Mascot, Jose Valdivia Jr., 116; Oil Man, Mike Smith, 116; Tiz True, Alex Solis, 116; Scorpio Dog, Clinton Potts, 116; Congor Bay, Joel Rosario, 118; Flashmans Papers, Rafael Bejarano, 118; and Kelly Leak, Espinoza, 117.


CECIL EYES IMPROVEMENT FROM FERNELEY IN SUNDAY’S SAN GABRIEL

Trainer Ben Cecil expects a move forward from Ferneley when the Irish-bred colt runs in Sunday’s Grade II San Gabriel Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on turf. The 4-year-old son of the Danzig sire Ishiguru was an even seventh at 15-1, beaten 3 ¼ lengths, in the Grade I Citation Handicap last out on Nov. 28.

“No horse improved his position in that race at all,” Cecil said. “If you look at the chart, everything stayed in the same order. My horse didn’t break very well, but he certainly wasn’t disgraced in the race. I think only one horse made up two positions. Whatsthescript was a head in front of me the whole way.

“My horse is coming around. He’ll win a race like this. I don’t know if it will be this one, but we want to try him on the Pro-Ride track at some point. He’s worked very well on it.”

Ferneley, owned by the Silver Springs Stud Farm of David Francis and Ian Patrick O’Rourke, has a 4-1-4 record from 19 starts, with earnings of $201,387. Ferenely worked five furlongs on Pro-Ride Tuesday in 1:00.80.


BEJARANO’S SWEEP SURPRISES AGENT FERRER

Despite the fact that Rafael Bejarano won six races at Santa Anita on a solitary visit to the Arcadia track on April 8, 2006, agent Joe Ferrer had no hint the 26-year-old Peruvian would enjoy the success he’s had since becoming a regular on the Southern California circuit a year ago at the urging of Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel.

Bejarano won the recent Hollywood Park title in runaway fashion, giving him a sweep of the last five titles in Southern California—2007-08 Santa Anita, Hollywood Park spring/summer, Del Mar, Oak Tree, and Hollywood fall. He is just the third jockey to sweep the five meets. Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron was the first to do so in 1983, followed by Patrick Valenzuela in 2003.

“I didn’t expect it,” said Ferrer, the man behind Bejarano’s success. “I didn’t think I’d win any meet, much less five in a row. When we first came here, (Garrett) Gomez had this place tied up, so I thought we’d always be (number) two. I came here with a mindset that Gomez would be first and I would be second in both races won and money won. As it turned out, it was a pleasant surprise.”


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.


HRTV AIRS SANTA ANITA PREVIEW SHOW TOMORROW

Racing fans will get a unique look at the upcoming Santa Anita Park winter/spring meet when HRTV presents an informative one-hour "Santa Anita Preview Show," premiering tomorrow at 9 a.m. with repeat airings through Christmas Day.

The preview show will offer a detailed perspective, featuring interviews with some of Southern California's prominent trainers and jockeys, as well as a sneak peak at some of the West Coast's promising 3-year-olds that may find themselves on the Triple Crown trail in the months ahead.

In addition, the preview show will also provide an overall assessment of Santa Anita's outstanding stakes schedule, which kicks off with the Grade I Malibu Stakes, Friday’s feature.


TOC ANNOUNCES CHANGES IN ALLOWANCE RACE CONDITIONS

The Thoroughbred Owners of California, working in collaboration with California tracks, has announced an agreed change to allowance race conditions, beginning Friday, Dec. 26, as part of on-going efforts to increase horse inventory and improve average field size.

Previously, California condition books included races for non-winners of $7,500 other than maiden, claiming, or starter races. The monetary limit will be increased to $10,000. TOC first took steps to raise the qualifying limit on allowance races in the spring of 2004, at that time increasing the limit from $3,000 to $7,500. That change encouraged local and out-of-state stables to purchase and send horses to California that qualified for such races.


FINISH LINES: Tyler Baze is expected to resume riding Jan. 1 at Santa Anita. The 26-year-old jockey was injured in a one-horse spill aboard Diamond Pink at Hollywood Park on Dec. 5. “Tyler’s doing great,” agent Ron Ebanks said Tuesday. “He can’t see his doctor (William Caton, a Pasadena neurosurgeon) until Monday, because he’s out of town. But the doctor will release him that day and Tyler will ride on Jan. 1. We were going to ride opening day, but that might have been pushing it a little, so we backed it up a week just to be safe. He feels good. The pain’s gone, the ribs are better and he’s been on some type of stimulating machine every day that’s really helped.” Baze suffered three cracked ribs and a hairline fracture of his right shoulder. “The hairline didn’t separate,” Ebanks said. “That’s why it healed so quick.” . . . San Antonio Handicap winner Well Armed, who worked four furlongs on Pro-Ride in :48.60, breezing, Saturday, is pointing to the Grade II San Pasqual Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on Jan. 10, trainer Eoin Harty said . . . A new face on Santa Anita’s backstretch is Marie Biancone, 27-year-old daughter of trainer Patrick Biancone, who has been assisting her father for nearly three years. “I do a little bit of everything, just pretty much what needs to be done,” Marie said . . . The California Horse Racing Board will conduct its regular monthly meeting Jan. 15 at Santa Anita Park in the Baldwin Terrace Room. The meeting agenda will be available on the CHRB website (http://www.chrb.ca.gov) by Jan. 5. The audio portion of the meeting can be heard through the “Webcasts” link on the CHRB website . . . Dennis O’Neil, brother of and consultant to leading trainer Doug O’Neill, will be Jerry Antonucci’s guest at the Today’s Racing Digest seminar Friday, 10:30 a.m., in the East Paddock Gardens. Saturday’s guest, at 11 a.m., is former trainer Nick Hines, current racing manager for the Southern Equine Racing Stable, and TVG analyst.