12/23/2009 12:00AM

New season starts with nod to past


ARCADIA, Calif. - After the exciting performances of Lookin at Lucky and Blind Luck in Hollywood Park's final flurry of ontrack action last weekend, one would think the appetite for a first-class horse racing experience would be alive and thriving. Now, on Saturday, it's Santa Anita's turn to serve.

Hollywood Park management probably did as well as they could with the corporate resources they have been given. Those 4,629 announced fans attending on closing day were treated to the most breathtaking performance by a local 2-year-old filly since Chilukki's Sorrento Stakes of 1999, or perhaps Halfbridled's 2003 Del Mar Debutante. The comment line attached to Blind Luck's seven-length should read "with disdain."

The fact that Blind Luck and likely champion Lookin at Lucky will be stabled and training right there at Santa Anita this winter is encouraging, and certainly reason enough to mark certain dates to watch them run. Their ultimate ambitions lie to the east, however, which means Santa Anita Park must be content for now with any heat generated by the coming 4-year-olds gathered for the Malibu Stakes and La Brea Stakes on Saturday.

The rest of the future is hazy, given the fact that Santa Anita is still very much up for sale, as part of the Magna Entertainment Corp. bankruptcy, and there even could be a different ownership announced by the end of January. This would be an unusual way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of such a respected sporting institution, fresh from hosting the 2009 Breeders' Cup in such stylish fashion. But who knows? Maybe the new decade deserves a clean slate.

It has been 11 years since Santa Anita opened on a Saturday - there was a leap year that got in the way - and 42,535 crammed through the turnstiles on Dec. 26, 1998. Hearts were lighter then, and while terrorist attacks had claimed lives at U.S. embassies in Africa, the greatest concern of a distracted nation seemed to be the detailed rendering of a president's most intimate physical needs.

Santa Anita's ringmasters will dip into nostalgia of a more wholesome sort on Saturday to entertain fans between the 10 races on the card. Top billing goes to the Mare Herself, the undefeated Zenyatta, who will put on one last public parade over the same ground she devoured last Nov. 7 in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Zenyatta has been called statuesque, and she is impossible to upstage. But earlier in the day, at the stand-side rim of the gushing Kingsbury Fountain, a lifesize bronze of the only modern Thoroughbred who could steal a Santa Anita scene from Z will be unveiled by the man who made him possible.

"I've been exercising my arm down at the gym," said Ron McAnally, who will pull the curtain during the ceremonies. He also runs two on Saturday.

"Just like Zenyatta, he brought the people to the races. But unlike Seabiscuit, there are still a lot of people around who got to see him run. I would think the statue would mean a lot to them."

Before John Henry met Ron McAnally, the headstrong gelding had been handled by four other trainers. Lefty Nickerson was getting the hang of John Henry by the time he got to New York, and it was Nickerson who recommended the horse be sent to his pal McAnally in California, where the turf was firm and dry. After that, the fairy tale kicked into high gear.

There was really no place else a John Henry statue could find a proper home. Yes, there is the inspiring bronze at Arlington Park, depicting John Henry's narrow win over The Bart in the 1981 running of the Arlington Million. The Kentucky Horse Park, where John Henry lived to be 32, has commissioned a work for his gravesite. And certainly fans in New York, New Jersey and Florida will remember John Henry when he roared through town.

But it was at Santa Anita that John Henry won nine major races during the Santa Anita winter meet, more than a third of his 26 graded stakes victories. Among them were the 1981 Santa Anita Handicap, over a field that included Flying Paster and Glorious Song, and the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap, on the disqualification of Perrault, who photoed him by a nose after packing him five lanes in the stretch.

Along the way John Henry helped draw 74,687 fans to the 1984 Santa Anita Handicap and 72,752 to the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap, numbers rarely found outside a Triple Crown event. At 15-2 and just over a thousand pounds, John Henry commanded the big stage like few horses in the history of the game, and in those days Santa Anita was his Carnegie Hall.

It is fitting that the image of John Henry created by artist Nina Kaiser will be saddled, bridled and spoiling for a fight, detailed down to the fluff of his trademark sheepskin shadow roll.

"That's the same shadow roll we've got hanging on the stairway there at home," said McAnally. "We always keep it brushed, and soap the leather to keep it soft."

John Henry is one of three Hall of Famers trained by McAnally, along with Paseana and Bayakoa. But that part was not particularly daunting to the artist. Kaiser has done smaller versions of Sunday Silence, A.P. Indy and Precisionist, among other greats. The John Henry work, however, is more than just a prestigious commission. It represents an installation of public art that rises to the level of historical significance, since John Henry ruled at a time when horse racing thrived. Not surprisingly, Kaiser consulted McAnally several times during the early stages of her work.

"I haven't seen the finished product yet, but I did make a few suggestions," McAnally said. "I emphasized that she had to get the eye - that big, almond-shaped eye of his. That's what you always remembered about John."

And that is what will be unveiled on Saturday.