LOS ANGELES -- This is a great time of year for people who are sick of hearing that their sport is dying.
Santa Anita opens Monday.
It is Southern California's big opener, kicking off a meeting that goes until April 22 and manages to win friends and influence history in horse racing for the rest of the season, and seasons to come. If the weather holds, as well as the health of the horses, the Great Race Place works as an apt description.
The annual Dec. 26 opening isn't quite the new year, but it always is a new beginning in Southern California racing. Nor is it the annual opening show offered by Del Mar, where women's midsummer hats and dresses are on such prominent display that racing is almost an afterthought. Del Mar's opener draws bigger crowds, Santa Anita's the more traditional racing public.
The Santa Anita meet annually sorts out a portion of the 3-year-old picture, leading to the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. The best from the West will emerge from the $750,000 Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 7. This is also the meeting that offers the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap, also worth $750,000. No further proof of the historic nature of the Big Cap is needed beyond recalling that the 1940 race was a centerpiece of the movie "Seabiscuit."
Opening day's big deal is the $300,000 Malibu Stakes. It is for 3-year-olds about to turn 4 (racehorses get a calendar year older each Jan. 1) and it is almost a can't-miss story because it will likely come down to a matchup between East and West. Steve Asmussen, one of the best trainers in the East, will saddle three starters and Bob Baffert, among the best in the West, will saddle four.
Among Baffert's horses will be one nicely named for a race called the Malibu and a trainer born for show biz, Hoorayforhollywood. Baffert will also have the favorite, The Factor, whose morning-line odds are 7-2.
Baffert told Santa Anita track reporter Ed Golden that, even with four of the 11 horses in the field, if he didn't win it wouldn't be his worst failure with a stacked field. He said he once had six of the eight starters in a quarter-horse race and didn't get the win.
It got worse. "The horse that did win, I had trained," Baffert said, "but the owner took him away from me about two weeks earlier."
Baffert, who has won just about everything in racing multiple times, is 0-20 in the Malibu.
Besides the racing, there are some nice touches connected to Santa Anita's winter/spring meeting.
There are races named after people of long service and prominence, such as the long-running Strub Stakes and the Frank E. Kilroe Mile. The late Bob Lewis, who owned near-Triple Crown winners Silver Charm and Charismatic in the late 1990s, is honored again with a $200,000 race. The Bobby Frankel Stakes, the New Year's Day feature, is named after the record-setting trainer with the New York City swagger who died Nov. 16, 2009.
There is a new entry March 31, the $200,000 Evening Jewel Stakes, named in honor of the recently retired female star. Evening Jewel was owned until recently by Tom and Marilyn Braly of Palm Springs, Calif. She was the pride and joy of Tom Braly, once a newspaper reporter for the L.A. Mirror who saw the error of his ways and started a successful insurance business. Braly died last summer, but not before seeing Evening Jewel win nearly $900,000.
John Shear, the paddock gate guard who threw himself in front of a child last year to shield her from injury from a loose horse, will be back at work Monday. He suffered multiple broken bones and a broken pelvis, but got himself in shape to come back. He will be 91 on Jan. 17.
The annual Santa Anita calendar, an opening day feature, has a photo on the August page of a tiny, naked little boy, riding a huge horse named Spot The Diplomat. The boy is one of two children, Dylan and Jack Hays, both autistic, who moved with their family from Los Angeles to Texas, where the family could afford the extra room for their boys to ride and be with Spot, the first real calming influence in their lives. As a thoroughbred, Spot had 41 starts and won $342,000.
Then there is the anticipation of the HBO series "Luck," filmed mostly at Santa Anita and premiering Jan. 29. It probably will resemble the realities of horse racing about as much as any television series resembles the reality of its subject matter, but racing people are excited about it because somebody is paying attention to their sport.
It will all come into focus Monday, shortly after noon Pacific, first post time. The distinctive voice of Trevor Denman will tell the crowd, "The horses are approaching the starting gate."
And it will begin again.