12/27/2005 12:00AM

Now the real running begins

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ARCADIA, Calif. - George Haines awoke Monday morning to drizzling gray skies and a prediction for more of the same. For Santa Anita's general manager, it was a worst-case opening-day scenario come true.

"At ten o'clock, I didn't think we were going to get anybody in the infield," Haines said later in the day. "They were going to have to sit on wet grass. We were going to end up with 25,000. But they stuck it out, and they came. Those are the people who make us go, our bread and butter. We all started coming here by going to the infield."

For the second generation Santa Anita executive, Monday's opener ended up ringing of sweet music. The final crowd count of 34,590 was solid by modern standards, and the nine-race card generated more than $19 million in nationwide handle. There were long lines, as usual, at any number of betting and concession windows. But for as many complaints that Haines may have fielded, he heard a equal number of nostalgic sighs.

"They were saying, 'This is like the old days,' " said Haines, who was celebrating his 34th straight opening day. " 'Look at this. Long lines again. Neat!' People just seem happy to be back."

There is something to be said for the synergy of the crowd - any crowd. The Southern California event of choice on Monday was, of course, the shopping mall, and the one next door to Santa Anita was throbbing with commerce.

"Here's how I measure the game in California," said Gary Young, private clocker and bloodstock agent. "When I first got here in 1981, the sign out there said 'No racetrack parking in mall lots.' Now it says 'No mall parking in racetrack lots.' "

Sad but true. But still, anyone driving past the vast Santa Anita parking lots on opening day had to be curious. Something interesting must be going on in there. Now, it will be the job of Haines and his team to build on a good beginning.

"There are always a lot of challenges," Haines said. "But if we can have a day like this, where people respond, this makes it all worthwhile."

Even though the climate has changed and racing runs year-round, people keep track of their Santa Anita opening days as special moments in personal racing history. Salvador "Sal" Gonzalez dates his first opener back to 1969, when he was a busboy and dishwasher in the clubhouse. He spent subsequent opening days riding shotgun on the horse-drawn carriage carrying the patrol judges to their poles, and then, in the early 1970's, he became a jockey.

Chances are, though, that Gonzalez will put a ring around this season's opener and keep it there forever. In his 28 years as a trainer, the 52-year-old native of Mexico never won a race bigger than the opening-day Malibu Stakes. And he did it in style, with the suddenly serious Proud Tower Too, who beat favored invader Attila's Storm by a length at the end of seven furlongs.

The Malibu, ranked Grade 1 with the help of such winners as Rock Hard Ten, Southern Image, Dixie Union, and Afternoon Deelites, has become an equal-opportunity race for connections of all shapes and sizes. In the last 10 years, Richard Mandella, Bobby Frankel, and Wally Dollase have sent forth winners. But so have Mike Puype, Anthony Margotta, Leonard Duncan, Juan Silva, and now Sal Gonzalez, names who have yet to attain household status.

The Gonzalez operation is bi-coastal, as long as you count the Rio Grande as a coast. He splits his time between stables at Hollywood Park and Sunland Park, but in reality his training life is pretty much focused on the foals of Dora's Tower, a 14-year-old daughter of Irish Tower who can't seem to throw anything but runners.

Owned by the Tricar Stables of Daniel Cardenas, Dora's Tower hit first with Proud Tower, the champion California-bred 2-year-old of 2000 who fractured sesamoids and was euthanized before he made a start at age 3. (Jose Silva was trainer of record, while Gonzalez was part of the Tricar team.) Next came Proud Cardenal, a foal of 2000, who flowered late to win the 2005 Phoenix Gold Cup. And now there is Proud Tower Too.

Until the Malibu, Proud Tower Too had spent most of his 15-race career in Cal-bred company, finally breaking through with a stakes win in the On Trust Handicap at Hollywood on Dec. 4. Two earlier daylight wins in Cal-bred allowance company were splashy, but none of those efforts translated into serious parimutuel consideration for the Malibu. He was 20-1 under 21-year-old David Cohen, in the face of a field that included Wilko, Greeley's Galaxy, and Thor's Echo, along with Fall Highweight winner Attila's Storm.

Gonzalez was asked what he thought turned Proud Tower Too into a colt good enough to win a race like the Malibu.

"Time and maturity," Gonzalez replied, although he could have added something about a front-running prejudice to the opening-day main track that had trainers and riders mumbling in frustration. Gonzalez, while conceding the bias, hoped his colt would be granted a measure of credit.

"He breaks on the lead, and if nobody challenges him he keeps on going," Gonzalez said. "But they pressed him today down the backstretch, and came to him turning for home. He just kept on going anyway."

Break on top and keep going strong, even when put under pressure. What a concept. Let's see if the Santa Anita season can follow suit.