Trainer John Shirreffs said he was eating at a Pasadena restaurant Christmas day when he overheard a bartender ask another worker, "Are you going to the races tomorrow?"
That might have been a clue to the interest in opening day at Santa Anita, where on Monday the on-track attendance was 44,579, the largest opening-day crowd since 1994. It resulted in traffic jams, filled parking lots and long lines for bathrooms, beer and betting.
"I think it's so much fun," Shirreffs said. "I love the energy."
Shirreffs was smiling near the winner's circle because jockey Mike Smith rode the Shirreffs-trained Mr. Commons to a 31/4-length victory over Irish Art in the $150,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes at one mile on the turf, sending him through a small opening along the rail with a hair-raising ride.
"I've learned that you can point this horse at a wall and he'll run through it if I ask him to," Smith said.
Added Shirreffs: "It's Mike Smith in the irons. Whatever he says, I'm following."
Warm, cloudless weather combined with a strong nine-race card featuring four stakes provided an ideal setting, and the horses and jockeys did their best to entertain.
Besides an 80-1 longshot, Kessabtsi, winning the fourth race, resulting in a $162.80 return for a $2 win bet, Smith was the biggest winner. He also directed unbeaten 2-year-old filly Imene to a 23/4-length triumph in the $100,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes, one of Smith's three wins.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert accomplished something he had never done before — win the Grade I $300,000 Malibu Stakes.
"I can put it on my website tonight," Baffert quipped.
The Factor, under jockey Martin Garcia, defeated Rothko by 31/2 lengths in 1:19.89 for seven furlongs, just missing the track record of 1:19.70 held by Twirling Candy.
"He showed what a good horse he is," Baffert said. "The Factor is the kind of horse when he's on his game, he's real dangerous."
Got Even, under jockey Garrett Gomez, won the $100,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes for 2-year-olds.