12/23/2001 12:00AM

Malibu a feather in anyone's cap

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Ask anyone committed to the racing life and they will tell you this without pause - there are few things better than winning a race on Santa Anita's opening day.

The crowd is always large, upward of 40,000 even in recent years, and the fans are hungry for sport. Most of them have turned a blind eye to the game since the Breeders' Cup, and now they are back, on the day after Christmas, clutching their free Santa Anita calendars, cholesterol soaring, still giddy from holiday cheer.

To win a race before such an audience is thrilling. And if you are going to win a race, it may as well be the big one. In the magical factory of wildest dreams, an opening-day victory in the Malibu Stakes ranks way up there, even for those not easily impressed. Berry Gordy gave us Motown Records, Gene Klein threw Dan Fouts at the NFL, Howard Keck won an Indy 500, and Burt Bacharach has a house full of Oscars, Grammies, and Emmies. Their Malibu trophies hold memories as precious as any.

At seven furlongs for 3-year-olds, the Malibu was designed as a valedictory for best survivors of the Triple Crown crop, as well as a springboard to the challenges ahead at age 4. But since the Triple Crown is basically a meat-grinder for talented young animals, it is a rare Malibu that delivers on that promise.

The exceptions are unforgettable. Damascus came west in late 1967 about to be crowned Horse of the Year and won the Malibu. Spectacular Bid raised the bar forever when he won the 1980 Malibu in 1:20.00, setting a track record in the process. And there will never be a better Malibu than in 1986, when a crowd of 65,954 watched Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand beat Preakness winner Snow Chief in a race that still brings chills, even on videotape.

Future is now for I Love Silver

I Love Silver never got past his third-place finish to Point Given in the Santa Anita Derby. Sanity prevailed, and he was spared the Kentucky Derby, although he did dawdle in New York with three unsuccessful starts in May, June, and July. They did him no harm.

Then came an allowance race at Del Mar on Aug. 11, at seven furlongs against older runners. Carrying the colors of Kirk and Judy Robison, I Love Silver won by seven lengths, and before the dust had cleared, everyone was making reservations for the Malibu.

Dean Greenman has handled I Love Silver in a way that would have made his father proud. Walter Greenman lost his fight with cancer in August of 2000, back when I Love Silver was just learning the ropes and Dean Greenman was spending most of his time in his dad's considerable shadow. Now, after a season of transition, Dean and his 18-horse stable are poised to pick up where his father left off.

I Love Silver was precocious enough during the spring of 2000 that the Greenmans planned to run him 4 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood as a 2-year-old. Then he bucked his shins, got them pinfired, and was gelded in the bargain. By the time Del Mar came around, he was ready to go again. I Love Silver made his debut on Aug. 12 with a fifth-place finish. Walter Greenman died on Aug. 13.

"I think about my dad all the time," the 35-year-old Greenman said on Sunday, as entries for the Malibu were being drawn. "Especially with this horse. He bought him. He and Bobby King broke him at the farm. We talked about him all the time."

Skipping the Triple Crown was a no-brainer for Dean Greenman. He didn't need his father to tell him it was a bad idea, even though I Love Silver was beaten just 2 1/2 lengths by Point Given in the San Felipe Stakes last March going 1 1/16 miles.

"If we would have gone to the Kentucky Derby, we would have completely ruined him," Greenman said. "There would have been nothing left."

Instead, I Love Silver has arrived at the end of the 2001 season improving with every start and ranking among the top three choices for the Malibu. Beyond that, he looks like the kind of horse who could make an impression in top middle distance races.

"If you've got a gelding, you've got to make money, and keep them going," Greenman noted. "That's what my dad did with horses like Savinio and Pinflorin. River Rhythm ran until he was 11. And look at horses like Kona Gold and Bet on Sunshine, what they're doing at their age.

"My dad always said to take it easy with them when they're young, then once they're ready, push the button."

Last year, on Santa Anita's opening day, Greenman won the race right after the Malibu Stakes with Such Charisma. Now, with a mature and dead fit I Love Silver, he's ready for the main event, and the career boost that could follow.

"Absolutely it could help," he said. "You can tell people 'till you're blue in the face, 'Hey, give me a good horse. I can do the same things Bob Baffert or Wayne Lukas can do.' But until you prove it, nobody's going to listen to you."