12/27/2007 1:00AM

Malibu a 14-horse puzzle

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Great Hunter was gearing up for the Belmont Stakes when he chipped an ankle bone. He makes his first start since in the Malibu.
ARCADIA, Calif. - Changes are afoot this winter at Santa Anita. The first long winter meet on a synthetic surface begins Wednesday, and bettors will be happy to find at least one custom still intact - an opening-day stakes filled with potential overlays.

Fourteen will run in the Grade 1, $250,000 Malibu Stakes, a seven-furlong sprint that is the first leg of the three-race Strub Series for 4-year-olds of 2008. While it is difficult to identify the likely favorite, it is tougher yet to find the winner.

Although Great Hunter has not raced in seven months, he is the only Grade 1 winner and thus qualifies as the class of the field. Les Grands Trois was supposed to get a good stalking trip, but then drew tough in post 2.

Divine Park is 3 for 3, including a win in the Withers Stakes, but his best Beyer Speed Figure is 91, well short of the 106 Malibu par.

Based strictly on last-start class, even the longshot Unusual Suspect has a chance. Unusual Suspect beat older turf sprinters in his most recent start a month ago and is switching to a new surface Wednesday while dropping into an age-restricted race.

Trainer Barry Abrams envisions two scenarios for 6-for-19 Unusual Suspect.

"If it's a hard, speed-biased track, we have no shot," he said. "But if we have a [closer-friendly] track, he'll win."

No one is sure how will the track play. The Cushion Track surface reopened Saturday after being closed for 2 1/2 weeks for maintenance, and the first two days of workouts produced wickedly fast times. It does not mean the track will have a bias in the afternoon, only that the final times are likely to be quick.

The fractions will be similarly swift in the Malibu, because E Z Warrior, Johnny Eves, and Desert Code all race on the lead. E Z Warrior, a graded stakes winner at 2, is coming back around for trainer Bob Baffert, finishing second in fast-paced stakes two months ago at Monmouth Park.

"One thing we've learned about this horse is that you cannot take a hold of him" Baffert said. "He's got to go - he wants to get out there and do his thing."

Mike Smith rides E Z Warrior.

E Z Warrior's task was made slightly easier when two speed horses were excluded at the draw - Stormin Normandy and Barbecue Eddie.

But with Desert Code drawn on the rail and Johnny Eves breathing on his neck from post 5, E Z Warrior will be under pressure from post 3. If the race unfolds as expected, Les Grands Trois could get a good trip from post 2. Trainer Bobby Frankel is sure Les Grand Trois is a better horse than his runner-up finish last out.

"I screwed up on the training; the work before his race was terrible," Frankel said.

What about now? "I think he's spot-on," Frankel said. "Is he good enough? That's the question."

If not, he is close. Les Grand Trois earned a 101 Beyer one start back, which is close enough to par. If the three speed horses hook up, Les Grand Trois has enough tactical speed to tuck into a good trip under Rafael Bejarano.

Great Hunter is racing for the first time since the Kentucky Derby and subsequent surgery for an ankle chip. Trainer Doug O'Neill is using the seven-furlong Malibu as a launch pad for his campaign.

"He's doing fantastic, and I think he's talented enough to be able to win going short first time out of the box," O'Neill said. "We're hoping he has a big effort and it's something to build on and have a real successful '08 campaign. That's the goal."

Corey Nakatani rides Great Hunter, a 3-for-10 colt who chipped the ankle bone while training for the Belmont. Great Hunter will be outrun early, and would benefit from a fast pace.

O'Neill also entered 4-for-10 graded stakes winner Cobalt Blue. Cobalt Blue rallied from last to first to win the $200,000 Select Stakes race in the slop at Monmouth Park in his last start two months ago. Garrett Gomez rides Cobalt Blue.

Other starters include Ididn'tdoanything, Hurry Up Austin, Carrilero, Horse Greeley, Silver Stetson Man, and Incriminate.