12/30/2015 4:04PM

Hovdey: Champions to provide big thrills in 2016

Songbird, winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, is among several stars on the Santa Anita backstretch.

There was still a buzz in the backstretch air last Sunday morning, the day after Santa Anita’s opening day, when a reported crowd of 44,873 poured forth from the suburbs of Los Angeles to enjoy a brisk afternoon of Thoroughbred sport. From barn to barn, the mood was light. The energy of opening day provided a bracing tonic, which only made sense. If you work in show business, when the curtain rises, you like to see people in the seats.

It had been 21 years since there was a Santa Anita opening-day crowd with a bigger number. The reported attendance was larger than even Del Mar’s 2015 opening day, which usually takes the cake. Yes, it was a Saturday. There was a full moon, clear skies, and giveaways galore, which encouraged the usual cohort of turnstile spinners to snarf up the free stuff and then split before they could watch Santiago Gonzalez win the first three races on the card. Their loss.

Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, and Kent Desormeaux – with their cumulative age of 147 – won five of the other six races, including three of the four graded stakes, leaving the impression that younger riders like Gonzalez, 32, and Tiago Pereira, 39, are at a serious disadvantage. Pereira won the Grade 3 Daytona Stakes down the hill aboard Toowindytohaulrox at 21-1.

It was the giddy sort of opening day that encourages dreams and feeds fantasies, which is what the game is all about. No doubt 2015 will be a hard act to follow, what with the American Pharoah fairy dust coating the public’s impressions of the sport. But American Pharoah is gone, and life goes on, as confirmed by a walk through the Santa Anita backstretch. Here there be champions, or at least champions in waiting.

Nyquist, the son of Uncle Mo who has yet to do anything wrong, was leaning against one of his padded stall walls in the Doug O’Neill barn, cozy under a blanket and dozing after his first work since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. It was a simple half-mile in 48.40 seconds.

“He’s very professional on the track, but he’s not always this quiet in his stall,” said Leandro Mora, O’Neill’s top assistant. “You see how we have to turn the pads so they cover more of the walls. When he gets hungry, he attacks the wall, bites it. That’s why we feed him first.”

Nyquist probably will get two races before the Kentucky Derby, although Santa Anita could lose him to Gulfstream because, as a Fasig-Tipton Ocala sales grad, he would be eligible for a $1 million bonus should he win the Florida Derby. We will reserve comment on two Stronach Group tracks wrestling over marquee talent for another day.

Just down the road, not far from the main-track gap, Dan Ward was interrupted at his working breakfast by a request to admire Songbird, another 2-year-old of perfection.

“It’s actually lunch,” Ward corrected. “Breakfast is at 3 a.m.”

The only reason Songbird is 4 for 4 instead of 5 for 5 like Nyquist is because she started 50 days later than he did and then won all the same kind of races, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Ward, who is Jerry Hollendorfer’s right-hand man in Southern California, led the visitor halfway down the west side of the barn, where Songbird was hanging her unmistakable face over the webbing in hopeful anticipation of company.

“She worked yesterday, three-eighths,” Ward noted. “I don’t know if Jerry has two or three races in mind for her before the Kentucky Oaks, but I figure he knows what he’s doing. He’s won it three times.”

Songbird twitched her ears.

“And that’s about as excited as you’ll see her get,” Ward added.

Songbird and Nyquist will be slam-dunk champions when the Eclipse Awards are presented at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 16. Stellar Wind, on the other hand, could be in a close vote against another Curlin filly, Curalina. They met only once, in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, where Stellar Wind was beaten a neck and Curalina was 2 1/2 lengths behind her in third.

“Look at that Curlin face,” said trainer John Sadler as Stellar Wind brought her snaking blaze to the door. “She was never going to be a big filly, but you still want to give them time to toughen and mature. With the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, I don’t want to do anything to keep her from being at her best that day, so I’m still working out her campaign.”

The final stop on the champions tour was in the far reaches of the stables, where a crowd around the corner stall belonged to Runhappy, the winner of the opening-day Malibu Stakes under Stevens.

Runhappy made the race look easy, adding a cherry to his championship performance in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. There had been some lowlife hecklers in the Santa Anita crowd chanting “Where’s Maria?” as Runhappy was being saddled, in reference to the controversial firing of former trainer Maria Borell by owner James McIngvale. But that noise died down in the 1:21.76 it took for Runhappy to cruise home by 3 1/2 lengths at the end of seven furlongs.

“It’s nice to talk about just him for a change,” said Laura Wohlers, stable manager and Runhappy’s current trainer. “He’s going to the farm in Texas now just to relax and be a horse for a little while. Then we’ll think about how to get him to the Metropolitan in June.”

Sounds like a good year already.