12/26/2009 1:00AM

Celebration of past, present

Benoit & Associates
The usual big crowd packs the walking ring - and the parking lot - on opening day of the Santa Anita meeting.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita marked the beginning of its 75th anniversary season on Saturday, when the gorgeous track opened for its long winter meet. And the track pulled out all the stops for a spectacular opening day, celebrating greats of the past and present, in addition to some of the traditions that make opening day a must-do for Southern California racing fans.

Zenyatta was unquestionably the most popular horse on this circuit over the past two seasons, and her career was topped by her final performance, which came at this track, a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic during the Oak Tree meeting. Her fans got one last chance to see her on Saturday, when she was brought to the winner's circle for the final time.

Preceding her appearance, Santa Anita showed a reply of her BC Classic win. Then Zenyatta galloped easily through the stretch with her exercise rider, Steve Willard, who took her back up the stretch so the throng of fans lining the rail could get a good view. The song "Every Little Thing She Does (Is Magic)," by the Police, was played over the public address system, a clever nod to Zenyatta being named for the Police album "Zenyatta Mondatta."

John Shirreffs, her trainer, walked along the outer rail of the track from the quarter pole to the wire, acknowledging the fans who clapped for Zenyatta by returning the applause in their direction. Then, in a replay of his famous hat toss following the Classic, Shirreffs tossed a Zenyatta cap into the stands as he neared the winner's circle.

Mike Smith, Zenyatta's jockey, climbed aboard for that final visit to the winner's circle, after which Zenyatta was walked back up the stretch, the cheers following her like the rolling waves in the ocean.

John Henry was unquestionably the most popular horse on this circuit in the early 1980s, when he regularly brought out massive crowds in the pre-simulcast era. A life-sized bronze of the great gelding, by the talented sculptress Nina Kaiser, was unveiled earlier in the day before an appreciative crowd that included trainer Ron McAnally, who helped pull the cover off the statue.

"What a job. Nina did a marvelous job," McAnally said. "It looks just like him."

Eduardo Inda, McAnally's assistant during the John Henry days, and the gelding's regular exercise rider, Lewis Cenicola, attended the ceremony, as did jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., who rode John Henry to a Santa Anita Handicap win in 1981.

John Henry becomes the second horse, after Seabiscuit, to have a bronze at Santa Anita. Both had their greatest moments here in the Santa Anita Handicap. Seabiscuit won the Big Cap in his third and final try. John Henry was the first two-time winner of the race.

John Henry's bronze has been placed on the north side of the Kingsbury fountain, where the bust of racecaller Joe Hernandez once stood. Hernandez's bronze was moved to the south side of the fountain, a prominent spot for fans when they first come through the main grandstand admission gates.

One day, a bronze will have to be cast for Trevor Denman, whose influence on racecalling in this country and popularity on this circuit are profound. His classy calls and soothing voice, absent since the Oak Tree meet, when he memorably described Zenyatta's closing charge in the BC Classic as "un-be-lievable," is one of the traditional comforts of opening day.

The Malibu Stakes, for 3-year-olds, has been the opening-day feature race for more than two decades, and this year that Grade 1 race was joined by another Grade 1, the La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Another tradition, the popular wall calendar, was given to fans as they came through the admission gates.

To get all that in on a 10-race card, the day began early, with first post at 11:30 a.m Pacific time. It was a chilly morning here, with temperatures at dawn barely above freezing, and overcast skies. The sun tried to poke through as first post neared, but it remained mostly cloudy and unseasonably cool until midway through the card. Mercifully, though, it was dry.

Owing to the early post, the crowd was late arriving, but the parking lot on the clubhouse turn was full by the time the first race was run, and then the lot adjacent to the backstretch started to rapidly fill. Santa Anita officials conservatively estimated a crowd of 30,000, but it seemed that would be easily eclipsed.

Like opening day at Del Mar, the first day at Santa Anita is one of the highlights of the year. But it is a different crowd and feel here. At Del Mar, opening day is one of the social events of the summer in San Diego County, and everyone who wants to be seen shows up. Santa Anita's opener attracts a more savvy racing crowd, as well as families looking to have their children burn off some Christmas sugar by frolicking in the infield.

It was a formful start to the day, with favored Strikingly Sinful winning a maiden-claiming race and making Victor Espinoza the meet's leading jockey.

"Yes," Espinoza said, laughing, "and hopefully I can finish like I started."

Espinoza said the Pro-Ride surface felt good.

"I think it's very fair today," he said. "The horses seem to be handling it well."