12/22/2014 2:49PM

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


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.