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Santa Anita gets to the heart of the matter

Tradition and nostalgia take center stage today when the track opens its winter meeting.

December 26, 2009|Bill Dwyre
  • Jockey Mike Smith guides Zenyatta to victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic last month at Santa Anita Park.
Jockey Mike Smith guides Zenyatta to victory in the Breeders' Cup… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)

The day will be full of tradition and nostalgia when Santa Anita opens its prestigious winter meeting today. And not only because it will be a 75th anniversary opening.

The racetrack of Seabiscuit and Silky Sullivan, of Johnny Longden and Bill Shoemaker, will open with two Grade I races, including the traditional $300,000 Malibu Stakes, and also include a couple of nice nods to the past.

Zenyatta, still on her victory tour and within three weeks of finding out if she did, indeed, win out in the Eclipse horse-of-the-year voting over the marvelous filly, Rachel Alexandra, will parade down the main stretch much like she did recently at Hollywood Park. That will be after the sixth race today, and her adoring public is likely to boost opening-day attendance a bit at the Great Race Place.

They will also unveil a new statue of John Henry, the grand gelding, who ran in 20 stakes races at Santa Anita and won 12 in the late 1970s and early '80s, including 11 in a row and two Santa Anita Handicaps. That statue will go in the paddock area, close to where Zenyatta did a little dance for the crowd on Breeders' Cup Day on Nov. 7 and then went out and beat the boys in the $5-million Classic.

With the November passing of Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, winner of 146 stakes at Santa Anita, new traditions and legends may build in the persons of Bob Baffert, John Sadler and Doug O'Neill.

Baffert will saddle one of the favorites in the Malibu Stakes, the wonderfully named Misremembered, a living monument to one of Roger Clemens' classic congressional hearing stumbles. The horse is co-owned by George Jacobs and Baffert's wife, Jill.

Baffert will also saddle a second horse carrying top weight of 121 pounds in the race, Mythical Power, who is the son of one of Baffert's early Kentucky Derby contenders, Congaree. Also carrying 121 pounds in the race will be veteran Papa Clem, this year's fourth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, who is named for a prominent racing official, the late Clement Hirsch, and is owned by Hirsch's son, Bo, and trained by Gary Stute.

The other Grade I feature of the day will be the $300,000 La Brea Stakes for fillies, like the Malibu a seven-furlong sprint. Baffert's Gabby's Golden Gal will carry top weight of 123 pounds and Sadler's Evita Argentina will be one of five carrying next heaviest of 119. Sadler won last season's training title with 40 wins.

O'Neill's pride and joy, the 8-year-old gelding Lava Man, once retired but now back after some cell transplants in his sore ankles, will help keep attention high at Santa Anita all weekend. Lava Man's comeback race will be in Sunday's $150,000 Grade II San Gabriel.

With a 10-race program today, first-race post time will be 11:30 a.m. The meeting will go for 83 days, through April 18, and will be highlighted by the March 6 Big Cap and the April 3 Santa Anita Derby, both $750,000 Grade I races.

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