Updated on 09/15/2011 1:39PM

Fresh and ready to roll!

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
The nine-race opening-day card averages more than a dozen runners in each event, and features the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Opening day of the winter meet at Santa Anita always looks good. This year, opening day looks great.

Invigorated from the eight-day break that followed Hollywood Park's fall meet, the Southern California racing circuit kicks back into gear Wednesday with a Santa Anita card of full fields, outstanding racing, and all-around enthusiasm. The Dec. 26 program is the first live card in Southern California since Hollywood ended way back on Dec. 17, and it shows.

"I think this break has freshened everybody up," said Rick Hammerle, assistant racing secretary. "You're going to see a lot more smiles here opening day; everyone's going to come in here fresh and ready to roll."

The horses certainly showed up on Wednesday, including 13 runners in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, led by Early Flyer and Yonaguska. Overall, the nine-race card averages more than 12 entrants per race, and the glamour division of the winter - next spring's Kentucky Derby hopefuls - starts with an outstanding allowance in race 3, followed by a 12-horse field of well-regarded maidens in race 4.

It's just like the good old days. Day One of the 85-day meet begins Wednesday at noon, and track officials are hoping for a crowd of more than 32,000. From now until the meet ends April 21, there is plenty to be decided in the meet's biggest races.

Siphonic is the early favorite for the Santa Anita Derby on April 6; fillies Habibti and You will gear toward the Santa Anita Oaks on March 9; and the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap for older horses will be run March 2. The Santa Margarita Handicap highlights the filly-mare division on March 10; while grass stars Bienemado and Val Royal will see action in races such as the San Juan Capistrano on April 21 and Frank Kilroe Mile on March 2.

First come the preliminaries. Although the seven-furlong, $200,000 Malibu is the first in a three-race series for 4-year-olds of 2002, the principals in the Malibu recognize the challenges they face as the distances increase. The Malibu is followed by the 1 1/16-mile San Fernando on Jan. 12, then the 1 1/8-mile Strub Stakes on Feb. 2.

Early Flyer missed most of summer with foot troubles, and returned Nov. 17 with a good second in the six-furlong De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel. Ron McAnally trains the seven-furlong specialist, who said: "He'll go a mile, a mile and a sixteenth. Beyond that, it's questionable." According to McAnally, Early Flyer has trained well since his comeback, and should be forwardly placed in a race that did not come up with much early speed. Chris McCarron rides the colt, who has won three of six for owner-breeder Verne Winchell.

Yonaguska - a pace-presser - returns to California after consecutive wins versus older graded stakes runners in New York. Trained by Wayne Lukas, Yonaguska's chances diminished when he drew the rail. Over the last two winter meets at Santa Anita, only three pressers have won seven-furlong races from the inside post. Yonaguska, to be ridden by Gary Stevens, is expected to remain in sprints and forgo the next two legs of the Strub series.

I Love Silver might be the most dramatic runner in the Malibu lineup. A deep closer trained by Dean Greenman, the 4-for-13 gelding is right at home going seven furlongs. Trouble is, the possibility of a tepid pace in the Malibu would compromise his chances to rally from behind, and neither Greenman nor jockey Eddie Delahoussaye will try to change I Love Silver's style for the sake of one race.

"I wish Squirtle Squirt was in there, yes," said Greenman, who also wondered about the absence of front-runners like D'wildcat and Crafty C.T. "Where are they at? I'm bringing a happy, healthy horse into the race. That's all I can do."

Greenman said I Love Silver is likely to stretch to two turns for the second leg of the Strub series - the San Fernando Stakes.

Mizzen Mast will trydirt for the first time, and trainer Bobby Frankel expects a top effort by the son of Cozzene because of his works on dirt. Considering that Frankel is top-heavy with grass horses, this is the time to experiment.

Giant Gentleman poses the potential upsetter. Trainer Brent Sumja said he has never started a horse in a Grade 1, but the colt's improving speed figures and versatile running style suggest he fits in a wide-open race. Not only that, Sumja said Giant Gentleman has trained super over the Santa Anita track. A winner of four races from seven starts, Giant Gentleman has campaigned primarily on the East Coast since winning his debut in March. Garrett Gomez rides the son of Montbrook, who Sumja said will skip the San Fernando and go directly to the Strub.

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