12/22/2011 4:01PM

Hovdey: Santa Anita's Malibu worth a shot for Ellis

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Santa Anita Park opens Monday, a few trees shy of a full orchard after recent winds but brimming with hope for a successful season free of the trials and tribulations that have plagued California’s most beautiful racetrack these last five years.

The racing surface is old news. It’s dirt. When it rains it will be packed tight and play fast. Horses will get quarter cracks and sore feet. Welcome to 1976, and live with it.

The ownership is settled. This time last year Santa Anita was still enmeshed in the travails of its parent company’s bankruptcy. Now Frank Stronach owns the place outright, doing business as the Stronach Group, which is kind of like Lindbergh using the term “we” to describe his flight. But never mind.

Freshly elevated racing boss Rick Hammerle pulled one out of his Bobby Umphrey playbook and crafted an opening-day card that begins and ends with compelling stakes events. (Umphrey, Hammerle’s mentor, was the larger-than-life racing executive who carded races for gray horses, races run the wrong way, and races named for just about any song ever done by The Doors or the Grateful Dead.)

When the curtain goes up at noon Monday, 2-year-old fillies will take the field in their division of the California Breeders’ Champion Stakes. Later on, the Cal-bred boys will have a shot, and there will also be the renewal of the Sir Beaufort at a mile on the grass, a race named for a Santa Anita Handicap winner noteworthy only because he was Charlie Whittingham’s last.

Fair warning, though, to L.A. sports fans leaving early. They might dodge a little traffic, but they will also miss the $300,000 Malibu Stakes at seven furlongs, carded as the ninth and final, with a post time of 4:35. If the past is prologue, the race should be worth the wait.

In the 2010 Malibu, Twirling Candy edged Smiling Tiger, both major players as the 2011 season progressed. The year before, M One Rifle defeated Misremembered, who went on to win the Santa Anita Handicap, and Papa Clem, who took the subsequent Strub. Santa Anita Handicap winners Rock Hard Ten and Southern Image won the Malibu, and Thor’s Echo and Midnight Lute, both winners of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, hit the board.

Hall of Famers Precisionist, Spectacular Bid, Ancient Title, Damascus, Buckpasser, Native Diver, and Round Table also won the Malibu, but that was bound to happen, since it has been run for 59 years, and through most of those Santa Anita was the place for good horses to be around Christmas.

Whether the field of 11 involved Monday will measure up is beside the point. One of them will win the Malibu, and that will carry weight. Bob Baffert knows this, which is why he has entered four from his Hall of Fame outfit in search of his first Malibu win, including The Factor, a hot and cold running colt of considerable talent, and Smash, a son of Smart Strike who comes off a sharp score at Hollywood Park in what could turn out to be a key heat.

The runner-up that day, by half a length, was Centralinteligence, a son of Smarty Jones out of a Seattle Slew mare, which at the very least makes him a conversation starter. Ron Ellis is the trainer, and please, no cracks about the “intelligence” part of his name being mispelled. Blame it on The Jockey Club’s 18-character straitjacket.

“I’ve always liked him,” said Ellis, who was in on the purchase. “Although he’s just not quite as professional as I’d like him to be. He still needs to learn how to relax the first part of a race, although he was better last time than the time before.”

Centralinteligence cost $90,000 as a Keeneland September yearling and was parceled out among an ownership that includes longtime Ellis clients Gary Finder and Elias Fabo, the Bongo Racing Stable syndicate managed by Bob Feld, and veteran owner John Amerman, whose best horses have included Lido Palace, Adoration, and Zenyatta’s big sister, Balance.

Patience was required, which comes with the Ellis package, but in the case of Centralinteligence it had to do with dicey shins that kept him from making his first start until June of his 3-year-old season. Along the way he was gelded, which clearly helped him be the kind of racehorse who has two well-regarded wins in five tries, plus that close second to Smash last out.

“Smash beat us fair and square,“ Ellis said. “It was the race before that, at Santa Anita last fall, that got us thinking about the Malibu. He wasn’t a hundred percent fit that day and ran huge.”

On Sept. 30, over the Santa Anita dirt, Centralinteligence took a six-furlong, nonwinners-other-than by the throat, stalking a 44-second half, and drew off to win by more than three lengths. The sheets, numbers, and figures were unanimous in their praise, but it was the trainer’s reaction that counted.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this horse is really talented,’ ” Ellis said.

Still, the leap from an allowance race loss to a stage like the opening-day Malibu is formidable. Ellis, 51, is notoriously reluctant to run where he thinks his horses do not belong.

“I’m too old to be just running in races like this,” he said. “I need to be winning them.

“But I think he fits,” Ellis said. “Being Mister Perfectionist, I think he might be one race away from being able to handle an 11-horse field of Grade 1 quality. But maybe I’m wrong. I sure hope so.”