12/26/2009 12:00AM

Lots to cheer at Santa Anita opener

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Barbara D. Livingston
Misremembered will be cutting back to seven furlongs for Saturday's Grade 1 Malibu Stakes.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The California winter racing season starts merrily Saturday with a festive atmosphere. Holiday cheer always spills to the day after Christmas, when the toys are new and the game is still fresh.

But racing is filled with both excitement and trepidation, and this winter at Santa Anita, the contradictions will be plenty.

Santa Anita's outstanding opening-day card Saturday is brimming with 107 horses entered in 10 races, including two Grade 1's. The first-day entries conceal the local inventory decline, from 3,500 race-ready runners in past seasons to only about 2,500 currently.

With five-day-a-week racing scheduled through April 18, the racing office faces a season-long test filling races with limited stock.

"It's going to be difficult," director of racing Mike Harlow said. "I think we can make it. It's a matter of if we can consistently put quality out there . . . that's the challenge."

There is plenty of quality opening day, and festivities include a parade by undefeated Zenyatta, who tuned up for her appearance by working a half-mile Monday at Hollywood Park. Zenyatta will parade after race 6. A bronze statue of John Henry will be unveiled in the fountain area following race 4, and a free calendar will be given to ontrack fans.

Amenable weather is expected Saturday, which is good news for fans, horsemen, and management. The main track at Santa Anita is Pro-Ride, an artificial surface that was unable to withstand a heavy mid-December rainstorm. When the all-weather track failed to drain properly, training was cancelled Dec. 13 and curtailed Dec. 14.

Southern California is forecast to be the recipient of a wet winter, which does not bode well for a racing surface frequently compromised by drainage issues. However, track superintendent Richard Tedesco said the use of a "Verti-drainer" should alleviate the problem.

Tedesco said the new equipment "does not change the consistency of the surface, it allows percolation." He said the equipment pokes holes, which allows the surface to drain.

"This racetrack is so much different from other racetracks," he said, adding that Santa Anita has problems that Del Mar and Hollywood Park do not face, "especially drainage."

It is unfortunate, because the winter meet at Santa Anita is the only Southern California meet in which rain is normal. Del Mar, which runs only in summer, has Polytrack. The surface at Hollywood Park is Cushion Track.

For horseplayers, a key challenge will be analyzing recent form established on the speed-friendly surface at Hollywood, and subsequently estimating the chances of front-runners to carry their speed on the Pro-Ride surface. The main track at Santa Anita is generally not conducive to front-runners, particularly in sprints.

Beyond handicapping challenges, a positive attribute to Pro-Ride is it can allow for a quicker rebound from rain. And even if expectations for a wet season prove accurate, mild California winters are more favorable than winter in other parts of the country.

Even while Santa Anita officials face the challenge of filling cards, the local population received a boost from several top East and Midwest-based stables. Todd Pletcher is expected to have about 24 horses at Santa Anita, while Ken McPeek, Bill Mott, and Christophe Clement are expected to have 12 or more horses stabled here.

"Those guys add spice; it's an exciting time of year," racing secretary Rick Hammerle said. "This is the start of the California racing season, and it's good to start out with a bang."

While John Sadler and Jerry Hollendorfer are among the top local trainers, Bob Baffert trains the deepest roster. His once-beaten 2-year-old Lookin at Lucky is expected to return in March and is the top prospect for the Santa Anita Derby on April 3.

Hollendorfer trains Hollywood Starlet winner Blind Luck, who is expected to start in two Grade 1's this winter - the Las Virgenes on Feb. 6 and the Santa Anita Oaks on March 6.

The Sunshine Millions remains on the schedule and will be run Jan. 30. The series was hit with a 50 percent reduction in purse money; the Classic this year will be a $500,000 race. The Santa Anita Handicap, to be run March 6, had its purse trimmed from $1 million to $750,000.

The filly-mare stakes are highlighted by the Grade 2 Santa Maria on Feb. 13 and the Grade 1 Santa Margarita on March 13.

The older handicap division is up for grabs, and going into the meet, Grade 2 Swaps winner Misremembered ranks among the leading candidates for the Santa Anita Handicap. Trained by Baffert, Misremembered finished second Nov. 27 against older horses in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Misremembered is one of 13 entered Saturday in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, a seven-furlong stakes for 3-year-olds. Skeptical bettors might stand against Misremembered, who prefers two turns, and stablemate Mythical Power, who has not raced since May.

Misremembered is arguably the best horse in the Malibu, but how tough is it to win going route to sprint?

"For him, it is tough" Baffert said. "He's not real quick. He's going to need the whole seven-eighths . . . every inch of it."

Mythical Power has not raced since May 9, when he won the Grade 3 Lone Star Derby by more than seven lengths. Mythical Power did not have a specific issue that led to his hiatus.

"I couldn't find anything wrong with him, he just wasn't right, so I stopped on him," Baffert said. "He has tactical speed speed."

Could he win first start back?

"He could, he's that good," Baffert said.

Victor Espinoza rides Misremembered, while Joel Rosario rides Mythical Power. The leading jockeys scheduled to ride this winter at Santa Anita include Garrett Gomez, Joe Talamo, Tyler Baze, and Rafael Bejarano.

The Malibu goes as race 9; race 8 is the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. The seven-furlong sprint includes Gabby's Golden Gal and Evita Argentina. Race 7 is the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort and includes Hollywood Derby winner The Usual Q.T.