12/22/2014 2:49PM

Hovdey: And then there was just the Malibu...

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Santa Anita Park opens again for business on Friday, buffed to a high sheen, its olive trees and hedges clipped to perfection, statuary polished. With the usual exception of a few marketing wrinkles, current management is doing for the opener what every management has done for years, which is unlock the gates, pass out calendars, and pray that a market for the live presentation of Thoroughbred racing hasn’t disappeared completely into the forgotten recesses of modern sports culture.

The song remains the same. If those inclined to experience horse racing in the flesh are not captivated by a trip to Santa Anita, then there is no hope. Might as well bring in mules and cue the dachshunds.

To kick things off, Pacific Classic winner Shared Belief gives the opening day Malibu Stakes all the class it needs, but he’s got company. Ten 3-year-olds were entered, including Chitu, Midnight Hawk, Pimpernel, and Indianapolis from the stable of Bob Baffert, while Shared Belief has stablemate Tamarando also representing the Jerry Hollendorfer operation.

Their domination of the Grade 1 field in sheer numbers speaks to the imbalance of power out West, as well as the status of Baffert and Hollendorfer in the national standings. Through the business of Dec. 21, Baffert ranked third to Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown with $14.3 million earned by his 412 runners in 2014, while Hollendorfer was fifth at $12.2 million from 1,055 starters. Of Baffert’s total, $4.3 million was won by stable star Bayern, while Shared Belief added $1.4 million to the Hollendorfer pot.

(For the statistically curious, the next-best California-based stable on the national list is John Sadler’s, at No. 14, unless you count Doug O’Neill, who was suspended for 45 days, and add the total accrued by the seamless work of his assistant, Leandro Mora, with the same horses. If you do, Leandroneill comes in a few bucks ahead of Sadler. Peter Miller, nearing the end of his best season, is No. 22.)

When it comes to Shared Belief, the once-beaten son of Candy Ride owned by Jim Rome and partners, no one is more excited than Mike Smith to see the talented gelding shake off his tough trip in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1 and jump back in the ring.

“There was a couple times I almost came off in that race, he had so much trouble,” Smith said this week from Santa Fe, where he was visiting family. “I sure hope he doesn’t remember anything, but I don’t think he will. He’s been training well there in Northern California, and he’s run well at seven-eighths before.

“Like a lot of people I think Horse of the Year might still be up in the air,” Smith added. “If we can pull this off it would sure be another feather in our cap.”

Smith was right about the feather. As for a win in the Malibu moving the Horse of the Year dial back in Shared Belief’s direction – dream on. During its 30 years as the opening day Santa Anita feature event, the Malibu has never made a difference in Eclipse Award voting.

Shifting the race to opening day in 1984 was an attempt to preserve the three heroic beats of the old Strub Series, which included the 7-furlong Malibu, the 9-furlong San Fernando, and the 10-furlong Charles H. Strub Stakes, honoring the track’s founder. As time passed, and both horsemen and horses became more frail – or selective – few attempted to run in all three races, even after the San Fernando and Strub were shortened.

Now the Stub series is history. For the first time since 1948, there is no major event on the Santa Anita stakes calendar exclusively for 4-year-olds. Recent runnings of the Strub have been anemic affairs, but during the past 20 years the race has managed to produce such winners as Rock Hard Ten, Medaglia d’Oro, General Challenge, Silver Charm, and Dare and Go.

The Strub effectively has been absorbed by the San Antonio Stakes, with a purse of $500,000 awaiting all comers at the end of a mile and one-eighth on Feb. 7. In management’s wildest fantasies, that will be enough to attract not only Shared Belief, but also California Chrome and Bayern for a robust rematch of the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The rendering of the Strub as an un-stakes requires at least a moment of silence. The race was too good for too long to be chucked so unceremoniously into history’s dust bin. Kentucky Derby winners Ponder, Determine, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, and Silver Charm won the Strub. So did Hall of Famers Round Table, Ancient Title, Precisionist, and Best Pal. And if a Thoroughbred ever ran a more exhilarating mile and a quarter race than the fiery Gun Bow did in winning the 1964 Strub – by 12 lengths no less – I will eat this keyboard.

In the meantime, this should be the last running of the Malibu on opening day, as long as opening day is Dec. 26 and not the first week in January. The results of a race of such quality need to be factored into a racing season, not ignored as the vestigial stakes tail of the previous year. Anyway, opening day is for calendars.

 

Randy Baker More than 1 year ago
I am not partial to any of the 3 year olds.I have watched all three run in all races.Aside from from Main Sequence who has an impressive turf resume.In a match race at a 1 1/4 on a fair track and from the races they ran, I would see the outcome as Shared Belief by 1/2 over a game California Chrome by 8 lengths over a tiring Bayern.
Ann Maree More than 1 year ago
By all accounts, it was a great turnout for opening day at SA, 40,000+, so we can all cheer about that. The sport isn't dead, at least not yet. Great article, Jay, and you always have relevant commentary on the sport that at least some of us still love. Being only a recent convert, I particularly enjoy trips down memory lane and a reminder of what has been left behind. I so wish I had been a fan back "in the good old days" of Round Table, Damascus, Forego, Secretariat, John Henry, and many of the great fillies, Lady's Secret, Susan's Girl, et al.
TRacingLifeMore More than 1 year ago
Make parking and admission free. Bettors will think they have an advantage and just gamble the savings anyway.
Quite a More than 1 year ago
I think Shared Belief is special. In his last two starts he was carried out into the parking lot and mugged. He won the previous and got beat less than 4 lengths in the latter. A good horse can be mentally broken from those two experiences. A great horse will come back and win. A great, great horse is one who is switching distances, coming off two consecutive rough trips and wins. I think Shared Belief is that horse. The Malibu will speaks volumes if Shared Belief wins...
John Stahl More than 1 year ago
Jay, while there are obviously many reasons why patrons are less inclined to go the track these days, if you want to know what the final nail was look no further than the BC Classic.
Frank More than 1 year ago
Beautiful horse - Shared Belief - If he wins it should definitely come down to him or Bayern on who is 3yr champion. These are the top 2!
Patrick De Vito More than 1 year ago
No chance. California Chrome is a lock with 2 legs of the Triple Crown under his belt, PLUS a Gr. 1 on Turf. No brainer.
Thomas Georgetown More than 1 year ago
But Bayern beat him more than not. Hmmmm I would have to say CC had no excuse in getting beat by Bayern in the BC. Heck, Toast of New York beat him, also. Nice spring but came up short in the end. Maybe they will give CC best 3 year old but really, logic would dictate a 3-year-old Bayern winning HOY has to also be the best 3 year old.
r More than 1 year ago
How can you say it comes down to Shared Beilief and Bayern. What about Califonia Chrome. My gut says CC does not win HOY or 3 YO or year because of owners outburst after the Belmont.
Thomas Georgetown More than 1 year ago
Or maybe because CC lost twice to Bayern? But either way, maybe CC's owner will demonstrate a little reserve this time.
Ronald Beal More than 1 year ago
3 accomplished candidates for 3yo champ, and it's a shame the BC Classic was not a truly run race. I fully expect the nod to go to CC. Huge triple crown series trumps everything except a blow out win in the BC Classic, and we didn't get one of those. Instead, we get a game, but narrow, win under suspect circumstance. Hope we get to see these 3 run against one another again, absent controversy. Ultimately, I think Shared Belief will reveal himself to be the best of the 3, but based on actual achievement this past year, it's gotta be CC. 3yo champ and HOY.
Delroy Brower More than 1 year ago
What are you smoking I just found out about Shared Belief when He was on hand and knees to beat a bunch of nobody's at some track I cant remember just prior to the Breeders cup. IF you randomly survey 100 people who follow sport casually and mention the name California Chrome they would know who you are speaking of Say Shared Belief and they would be like me prior to that night at OTB when he won some graded stake against high class cllaimers in a desperate finish. I have not seen an exciting 3 y/o like Chrome since Sunday Silence. Sunday do was over rated. Put Bayern in a contested pace against high level claimers at Aqueduct and watch him walk home. The horse is a one dimensional front runner who is very fast and will carry his speed when left alone. Speed iuncontested is always golden. He is not in Shared Belief class and he his notches below the Derby winner who trounce him by 40 lenghts in the Preakness and you want to consider him for horse of the Year. Are you sane. He could not pull the crowd of the Derby winner neither can Shared belief . Chrome is versatile. I wish they would cover his eyes and race him differently so that he does not expend as much energy racing 3 and 4 wide around racetracks trying to avoid getting dust in his face. Sounds like something that can be over come . This horse style of running to just forces him to cover at least 10 to 15 yards longer than a rail horse such as Bayern and Shared Belief who saves ground always. Chrome is a monster.
Thomas Georgetown More than 1 year ago
What? So you really don't follow horse racing to know SB was the 2 year old champion last year? Or his wins this year before the Breeders' Cup races? I only hope the voters follow racing a bit more.
Capo Capo More than 1 year ago
Ignorant statement. Carry on.