12/22/2010 3:25PM

At least the outlook at Santa Anita is sunny


Given the amount of muddy debris cascading down fire-denuded hillsides, the run-off spewing from catch-basins into the sea, and the overwhelmed drainage systems flooding major intersections, references to a glass being half full are in downright poor taste in Southern California right now.

At least that’s the way it felt Wednesday, when entries for Sunday’s opening-day program of the Santa Anita Park season were taken. The first card of the meet promised to be a good one, with Grade 1 events such as the Malibu and the La Brea topping the bill. “Optimism” had been circulating for weeks as management’s mantra of choice as the opener approached, with fond hopes that the corporate mood would leak into the wider world of participants and fans. And it was a reasonable expectation, given that horse racing is populated by the chronically hopeful, ever complaining that the food is terrible and served in such small portions.

In one sense, Santa Anita can hardly fail. The meet could hardly find a better act to follow. As grim metaphors go, it doesn’t get much grimmer than the final hours of the long siege of racing just concluded at Hollywood Park, and how they characterized the depths to which both the mood and the economy of California racing have fallen.

No one did the Oak Tree Racing Association any favors by allowing its meet to be run in October at Hollywood, while the main track at Santa Anita was being replaced. (Oak Tree’s numbers plummeted from the previous year, even de-factoring the impact of the 2009 Breeders’ Cup.) Then, coming on Oak Tree’s heels, what was once a diverting Hollywood mini-meet of occasionally brilliant stakes racing ended up a long slog to the Christmas break, punctuated by a closing day last Sunday to which fans were invited to attend, free of charge, only to have the show cancelled because of track conditions after just two races.

Mother Nature, having spoken, continued to spank the racing community all through the holiday run-up. What had been a new main track enjoying cautiously positive reviews had to be sealed tight, as is the custom with a surface composed of sand and clay for which there is no drainage, only escape. It was fingers crossed every which way as the weekend neared, and the surface would be tickled open, like the corner of an especially tempting Christmas package worried over by a 5-year-old.

As the rains persisted, the rosy glow of a Santa Anita homecoming at the beginning of the month has given way to hunkered down, waiting out the storms. Carla Gaines is only one among many holding their collective breath.

“It was heaven getting back home to our barn here,” said Gaines, whose shedrow can be found just inside the main stable gate. “Santa Anita’s my home, and I love it.

“I must have worked 20-something horses that first week and 20-something the second, and the track was fast,” she said. “Like holy guacamole fast. But they were coming out of their works sound. Now you just have to hope this deluge doesn’t wash it all away, and the track has held up when they open it.”

Gaines plans to be represented in the $250,000 La Brea on Sunday by Malibu Pier, a daughter of Malibu Moon, who will be making only the fifth start of her career for the Spendthrift Farm of owner B. Wayne Hughes.

Hughes is a Malibu guy all the way, and for him to name a filly for the landmark Malibu Pier is like someone in New York calling a horse East River, or The Battery. The real Malibu Pier, built in 1905 and renovated several times since, is hard by the famous Surfrider Beach (and its three-point break). The pier has taken a weather beating this week, but it’s nothing compared to the El Nino storms of 1993, or the ferocious winter of 1943-44, when the end of the pier was ripped off and dashed onto the beach.

Malibu Pier, the filly, dates only to the Spendthrift foal crop of 2007. She was sent to Gaines as a 2-year-old, full of promise, but you know how those things sometimes go.

“I don’t get a massive amount of 2-year-olds,” Gaines said. “But you do get discouraged when you see budding talent and you get all excited, and then you’ve got to turn them out. But then, when they come back in, your first thought is, ‘Well, that’s the best thing that could have ever happened.’ They’ve grown and developed so much, you just look at them and go, ‘Whoa!’ ”

Or giddyup, as it were. Once Malibu Pier got rolling last July, she has been in steady competition and now comes the time for a Grade 1 swing. At 7 furlongs, the La Brea figures to be the kind of race in which Malibu Pier will come running late, even though she did lead all the way to win a mile race at Del Mar. In her last two starts, including an allowance romp at Hollywood Park, she conceded the pace in favor of a big finish.

Rafael Bejarano had ridden Malibu Pier in each of her four starts but has opted to ride Always a Princess for Bob Baffert in the La Brea. A trainer, left dangling, sometimes hopes to get lucky with a replacement jock. So who did Gaines land for her filly?

“Garrett Gomez,” she said.

Merry Christmas. And happy Santa Anita.