Sunday, December 27, 2009
It’s About That Glass
The glass was half-full, and then some, when Santa Anita celebrated its 75th anniversary and the opening of its 73rd season (if you're really worried about the discrepancy, see World War II). The crowd was more than 35,000, which is a big deal these days except when they're running a Breeders' Cup. Zenyatta, whose next date is with a stallion to be named later in Kentucky, came to the winner's circle one last time, and Gary Stevens, the ex-jockey, said he cried for only the second time at the track (the first was when the Big Z won the Breeders' Cup Classic). John Henry's $100,000, 1,000-pound bronze was unveiled near the paddock, not far from Seabiscuit's, and John Henry's trainer, Ron McAnally, approved of the likeness. Between this short-term and long-term nostalgia, they also ran a few races, and damn if Mike Smith didn't win the most important one. You might remember Mike. He had something to do with Zenyatta.
Smith's winning, front-running ride on M One Rifle in the Malibu was the opposite of a Zenyatta imitation, but it produced the biggest posy anyone could possibly toss to a jockey. "Mike reminds me of Shoe, that's why I like to use him," said Bruce Headley, who trains M One Rifle and owns the California-bred in a partnership. Headley, soon to be 76, wasn't around for the launch of Santa Anita in 1934, it only seems that way. But he was around for the launch of Bill Shoemaker. They were a couple of kids, Headley a Californian and Shoemaker from Texas, who were together, trying to learn about horsebacking, at the Suzy Q Ranch in the late 1940s.
A distant second to M One Rifle in the Malibu was Misremembered, who started on the rail in the field of 13 and also finished there. Miscast as a sprinter for a day, Misremembered was part of a disappointing day for Bob Baffert, eight-time training champion of Santa Anita, who didn't win with six horses until a first-timer, Concord Point, won the last race. Don't sob for Baffert. He has too much stock not to again be a factor at this meet. He'll be very close to 600 career wins at the track before the season ends.
One of Baffert's futures is Lookin at Lucky, likely Eclipse Award winner and the early future-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Lookin at Lucky, however, may be an example of what happens to a track when it sells its soul to synthetic surfaces. Look for Baffert to go out of town with Lookin at Lucky as the Derby prep races approach. Baffert has looked at what's happened to synthetic-to-dirt horses in recent Derbys, and not liked what he's seen.
There are other caveats to Santa Anita's rosy start. What could be more of an albatross than ongoing bankruptcy proceedings for Santa Anita's parent company, which might result in the sale of the track in January or February? For insight, there's a judge in Delaware who'd love to take your call. But don't count out Frank Stronach, owner of Santa Anita since 1998. No one knows how many rabbits he's got left in his hat.
Other drawbacks are the available horse population, which according to the Daily Racing Form has shrunk to about 2,500, a loss of 1,000 head; and continued drainage problems for Pro-Ride, which flunked another test when heavy rain disrupted the training schedule for two days in December. January through March is the rainy season in Southern California. Overall betting, disrupted by what seems like regularly scheduled disputes involving satellite wagering companies, missed the $15-million mark on opening day, and was the third lowest in the last 10 years. The last time Santa Anita opened on a Saturday, 11 years ago, betting totaled $18.6 million.
The irony to opening day is that two of the stakes were won by Headley and John Sadler, whose Evita Argentina was best in the LaBrea. Both trainers have been unwilling exponents of California's artificial-surface explosion. Headley spends much of his mornings with his horses on Santa Anita's training track, which is still dirt. But for now, they can put their reservations about synthetics on hold, and hoist glasses that are half-filled. All the better if they're not drinking from false bottoms.