09/28/2011 4:06PM

Meet's name changes, but still same tough Yellow Ribbon


Autumn. It’s a lovely word, and generous, too, fully equipped with an extra letter in case you come up with an “n” missing later in the thought. Much better than “fall,” no question, because autumn means only one thing and fall is definitely not what you want to hear around a racetrack.

So now we must get used to what is being called the Santa Anita Autumn Meet, which commences on Friday and runs though Nov. 6. That’s 24 days, offering 22 advertised stakes, none worth more than $250,000 and most of the half-dozen big money events propped up by cash from the Breeders’ Cup Fund.

Those with memories that go back as far as Lady Gaga’s 2010 Monster Ball tour will recall that this meet was once known as Oak Tree. The residue from those days will be apparent in the names of the races run during the season, lifted entirely from Oak Tree’s catalog, including the self-evident Oak Tree Derby and Oak Tree Mile. Once the confusion abates, there is at least a case for continuity.

No race on the schedule, though, screams “Oak Tree” more loudly than the Yellow Ribbon Stakes, which will be among the highlights of the autumn meet’s first big day on Saturday. At 1 1/4 miles on Santa Anita’s gorgeous ribbon of pool-table turf, the Yellow Ribbon hit the ground running at a high level of international acceptance in 1977 and has yet to disappoint. Until the Breeders’ Cup added a turf race for females in 1999, the Yellow Ribbon often exercised conclusive championship results. From 1983 through 2008 the purse was never worth less than $500,000, and long after the money was spent the trophy still looked pretty good on the shelf.

If a race is known by those who covet its possession, get a load of the stables that have claimed a Yellow Ribbon. A partial list includes Nelson Bunker Hunt, Darby Dan, Kinghaven Farm, Henryk deKwiatkowski, Gary Tanaka, Jenny Craig, Marty Wygod, and four winners alone from Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farm.

Wayne Hughes, now the proprietor of Spendthrift Farm, once raced a mare named Trishyde who had Yellow Ribbon written all over her, but after a good winter of 1993-94 at Santa Anita she went wrong before the fall – er, autumn – and had to be retired.

On Saturday, Hughes has his best shot since then with his homebred Malibu Pier. A daughter of Malibu Moon, Malibu Pier comes off a tough beat in the John C. Mabee Stakes at Del Mar, in which jockey Brice Blanc lost a stirrup early and his whip late before dropping a half-length decision to Cozi Rosie at the end of 1 1/8 miles.

For a good thought, Hughes and his team can turn back to the Santa Anita meet of earlier this year when Malibu Pier bagged both the Santa Ana and Santa Barbara handicaps. She added the Beverly Hills at Hollywood Park, and comes into the Yellow Ribbon with a record of 6 wins from just 12 starts.

On Wednesday morning, as farrier Keith Bowen fashioned a fresh set of size-five racing plates for Malibu Pier, trainer Carla Gaines looked on as if a bomb were being defused.

“Be careful,” Gaines said. “She’s running in a Grade one race on Saturday.”

Bowen, who has lost count of the good horses he has shod, paused and shifted a nail in his teeth. His tone was that of a pastor dealing with a nervous groom.

“Carla,” Bowen said, “How about you go stand over there.”

Gaines could find something to worry over in a basket of kittens. She has already won a Yellow Ribbon with the remarkable Nashoba’s Key, in 2007. And her handling of Malibu Pier, who did not get started until well into her 3-year-old season, has been admirable. Still she frets.

“I die a little every time I think about the Mabee,” she said. “For some reason she broke funny that day and Brice lost his iron. She’d never done that before. She ends up going wide, which is tough to do at Del Mar, and the winner gets through. She ran awful good to get beat that way.”

Gaines soothed her nerves by whispering a few sweet nothings into the filly’s ear, then stood back to take in the view as Bowen picked up another foot. Malibu Pier is a classic caramel chestnut with just enough white here and there to make things interesting, but it is the Bend-or blotch of dark brown hair on her left rump that makes her unmistakable in any crowd.

“She’s about the size of an overgrown German shepherd,” Gaines said, marveling at the power in the package. “She was kind of soft-boned as a young horse so we gave her plenty of time to develop, and anyway with her offset knees she was never going to go into a yearling sale. Her beautiful hind leg helps make up for that, and her hind-quarters. And she’s got a real big engine.”

Those lungs and heart have put Malibu Pier in the front row of a very deep California division of fillies and mares on the grass. Their quality was validated when Dubawi Heights, who defeated Malibu Pier and Cozi Rosie in the Gamely at Hollywood Park, finished a stout second to Stacelita in the Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park in August.

Dubawi Heights is back home to contest the Yellow Ribbon, along with Cozi Rosie and Harmonious. Their presence, along with the talented 3-year-old Cambina, positions the race as a conclusive final exam for the West Coast season. With three stakes wins and a tough beat in a fourth, Malibu Pier is clearly the most consistent of the bunch – but not by much.