12/21/2012 4:26PM

Hovdey: Malibu, La Brea could be New Year's gifts

Shigeki Kikkawa
Midnight Transfer, a son of Hard Spun owned by Warren Williamson, was among the stars of Santa Anita’s 2011-12 opening day.

In one sense, Santa Anita Park tradition is to be admired for its disregard of the 12-month calendar. To stage a glorious “beginning” of anything on Dec. 26 defies logic, but has certainly worked for the suburban L.A. racetrack since it opened on Christmas Day, 1934.

On Wednesday, fans will be treated to My Miss Aurelia, a legitimate star, in the La Brea Stakes and a field of battle-tested 3-year-olds in the Malibu, as well as the sound of Trevor Denman’s voice bouncing off the San Gabriel Mountains on what will likely be a postcard of a day.

In the broader context of racing politics, however, staging the Malibu and the La Brea on opening day is a waste of two good races, as long as Santa Anita’s opening day falls in late December.

Both events would have a greater impact on the national scene if they counted toward accomplishments for the following year. True, the weight for championships usually tips toward races of the late summer and fall, climaxed by the Breeders’ Cup. But there are always tough choices, and a major win in January could tip the scales, especially if a horse holds up to a long campaign.

For instance, in Horse of the Year voting for 1987, Ferdinand’s margin of victory came down to an 8-7 edge over Theatrical among Thoroughbred Racing Associations racing secretaries after the Daily Racing Form went strong for Theatrical and the National Turf Writers voted big-time for Ferdinand. This was kind of like a Presidential elecion coming down to Delaware, but that’s how the Eclipse Awards omelette used to be made.

However, Ferdinand essentially began his Horse of the Year campaign by winning the 1986 Malibu on Dec. 26. He did not look or act any differently six days later when he turned 4, but as far as 1987 was concerned the Malibu never happened. Who knows? If it had been run a week later, Ferdinand might have been the more conclusive Horse of the Year.

Before it moved to opening day in 1984, the Malibu date was never nailed down. Damascus, the 1967 Horse of the Year, won the seven-furlong Malibu on Jan. 6, 1968 to commence his 4-year-old campaign. J.O. Tobin won the Malibu on Jan. 1, 1978, which undoubtedly helped him to a share of the sprint championship that year with Dr. Patches. Ancient Title won his Malibu on Jan. 12, 1974, which did not prevent him from going on to win the nine-furlong San Fernando two weeks later and the 10-furlong Strub Stakes two weeks after that.

Quite by coincidence, if the Malibu were more logically placed this time around, Carla Gaines would have been glad to have participated with Midnight Transfer. As it is, the little chestnut needs another work or so to be ready to compete at the Malibu’s Grade 1 level, and so he will be contentedly munching his grain late Wednesday afternoon while The Lumber Guy, Drill, Unbridled’s Note, Private Zone, and the others tangle in the opening-day feature.

“He’s only had one six-furlong work, but it was stunning,” said Gaines, who was spending a few days visiting family in her native Alabama. “Seven furlongs is a tough distance to come back at, so you don’t want to have any doubts about how fit your horse is.”

Midnight Transfer, a son of Hard Spun owned by Warren Williamson, was among the stars of Santa Anita’s 2011-12 opening day when he won a six-furlong maiden as if he wanted to play with the big boys. He came right back to win the minor San Pedro Stakes, then ran third to Creative Cause and Bodemeister in the San Felipe. After finishing well back of I’ll Have Another and Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby, Midnight Transfer was discovered to have suffered a cannon bone fracture.

“It was minimal – small and straight, and it did not exit into an ankle or anything of that nature,” Gaines said.

I’ll Have Another, Creative Cause, and Bodemeister have retired now, along with just about every other 3-year-old of note who competed during the first half of 2012. That leaves the older division turning to colts like Midnight Transfer for any depth of quality.

“He looks fabulous, although he’s still a mini, a real little powerhouse,“ Gaines said. “There will be a lot of races for him.”

Stute’s absence notable

Snow Chief finished second to Ferdinand in that Malibu of long ago, the same Snow Chief who, a few weeks later, was honored as champion 3-year-old of 1986. I only mention this because Mel Stute, who trained Snow Chief – as well as the major race winners First Balcony, Commissary,Telly’s Pop, Double Discount, Brave Raj, Very Subtle, Real Connection, and . . . oh well, you get the picture – will be among the absent Santa Anita’s opening day.

This is not quite like President Obama bailing on his own inauguration, but it’s close. Stute transcended icon status a long time ago, at least as far as the California racing world is concerned, and must now be considered nothing short of living history. The fact that he no longer has any horses to train is a shame, but beside the point. He could if anyone asked, and he refuses to say he is retired.

Stute, who is 85, would be front and center to play an attractive card and glad-hand holiday well-wishers on Wednesday but for the fact that he took a bad tumble recently, and did a good job of ringing his bell. That put him in Cedars Sinai Hospital in West L.A. for initial treatment and then the Casa Colina rehabilitation center in Pomona, where he has been undergoing therapy for the past week or so. His son, trainer Gary Stute, reported that Mel would be there at least through Christmas.

“He wants to go home in the worst way,” Gary said. “But I kept telling him now’s the best time to just lay low and get better, since there’s no racing until the day after Christmas. His doctor said he could go home for four hours on Christmas day, so I figure if they’ll let him do that I don’t see why they can’t let him go with a friend for a few hours to the satellite at Fairplex Park on the day after Christmas.”