Updated on 09/17/2011 6:10PM

Dreams for a new year begin


ARCADIA, Calif. - The slates are all clean on Sunday, opening day of the 2004-2005 winter racing season Santa Anita. It will not stay that way.

Between now and closing day, April 18, the only guarantee is change. Precocious 2004 juveniles will face waves of later-bloomers into 2005, and if there are more challengers to unbeaten Declan's Moon, they may emerge as soon as Sunday in two maiden races for 2-year-olds. A six-furlong sprint (race 6) drew 14 entrants; another at 1 1/16 miles (race 9) drew 13. There are big fields and big dreams on opening day, which also includes the Grade 1 .

"It's like the first day of school," said trainer Bob Baffert. "We're starting from scratch again. . . . It's the start of a whole new year." Baffert entered four maidens Sunday, including One Smart Deputy, one of the favorites in the wide-open nightcap.

Winter at Santa Anita is where Derby dreams are born, and where others are shattered. Declan's Moon will aim to the Santa Anita Derby on April 9, the filly Sweet Catomine to the Santa Anita Oaks on March 13. Whether they get there or not, at least they provide a mark. Not so in the handicap division. Once you get past Truly a Judge, there is a lot of empty space.

will try to fill the void. He returns Sunday in the Malibu Stakes, his first start since the Haskell in August and first since moving from trainer Jason Orman to Richard Mandella. The colt is on the short list of candidates for the Santa Anita Handicap on March 5, but Sunday in the Malibu, the question is can Rock Hard Ten get up at seven furlongs, first start back? After all, it is the beginning of a long season. Past performances aside, everyone is even on opening day.

"At Santa Anita, it's the start of a new season, and that's always exciting," said Mandella.

Mandella has more than one reason for Malibu Stakes enthusiasm - he also starts Minister Eric and Spellbinder in the $250,000 stakes, which goes as race 8, and his 2003 juvenile champion, Action This Day, tries turf in a two-other-than allowance that is race 5.

Mandella may start Malibu quantity, but Bobby Frankel starts the quality. His 5-for-7 colt Mass Media earned a smashing Beyer Speed Figure of 115 winning the Grade 3 Sport Page in his last race Oct. 15 at Aqueduct, drilling older sprinters by daylight. The runner-up, Lion Tamer, validated the race by winning the Cigar Mile next out. Frankel also starts favorite Three Valleys in the $100,000 Sir Beaufort (race 7) at a mile on turf. The Malibu and Sir Beaufort are restricted to 3-year-olds.

For Frankel, the start of the winter meet also means a resumption of his racing program, which he shut down after a rash of injuries at Hollywood Park. Frankel has not started a horse in Southern California since Dec. 5. Brimming with fresh stock, Frankel will be loaded early in the meet.

The opening-day card at Santa Anita, which is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its first meet, shows how good Southern California racing still can be. Five dark days and a higher purse structure than the Hollywood Park fall meet that ended Monday helped produce an outstanding nine-race card with an average field size of more than 11 starters per race.

None is stronger than the Malibu. A field of 12 entered, and a case can be made for at least half the field. The median Beyer Figure of the last 10 Malibu winners is 105, a figure that six Malibu starters already have equaled or exceeded.

Rock Hard Ten is the most intriguing, because he is expected to make an impact outside the sprint division. Runner-up finisher in the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness Stakes before winning the Grade 2 Swaps, Rock Hard Ten has not sprinted since his winning debut last February.

"Seven furlongs might be a little short for him, but he's an impressive horse," Mandella said. Recent history is on his side: Five of the last six Malibu winners were shortening up. Rock Hard Ten is not likely to get beat because of distance, but he may get beat if he is outrun by a faster horse.

There are possibilities beyond Mass Media, including . A graded-stakes-placed colt, he makes his second start off a layoff, and Mandella has added blinkers "to try and turn up the volume one more notch." He said Minister Eric has been "more focused" in works with blinkers. While he agrees Rock Hard Ten's past performances are jazzier, Mandella said, "The difference is that Minister Eric should really like the seven-eighths."

is not good enough on class or speed, but superfecta bettors may be interested in Mandella's endorsement of the longshot.

"It's a wild card," he said, "but we're giving it a shot because he's doing so good."

Other Malibu entrants include the Pennsylvania Derby winner Love of Money, consistent gelding Lava Man, graded stakes winners Perfect Moon and Quintons Gold Rush, speedball , European import Grand Reward, late-runner Harvard Avenue, and longshot Jeffries Bay.

Although jockey Dana Whitney has never ridden regularly at the Santa Anita winter meet, the latest arrival to the local colony understands the significance of opening day. "When they hit the stretch," Whitney said, ". . . it's on."

The field

Purse: $250,000; 7 furlongs; Grade 1

1Love of MoneyV. Espinoza1214-1
2Mass MediaJ. Castellano1197-2
3Harvard AvenueG. Gomez11520-1
4Stone RainM. Pedroza11520-1
5Jeffries BayJ. Valdivia Jr.11730-1
6Grand RewardT. Baze11520-1
7Perfect MoonM. Smith1158-1
8SpellbinderD. Flores11520-1
9Lava ManJ. Court1158-1
10Quintons Gold RushE. Prado1218-1
11Rock Hard TenG. Stevens1215-2
12Minister EricR. Douglas11515-1

* Blinkers on: Minister Eric
* Odds by Dan Illman