12/23/2002 12:00AM

Opener a day off from cruel world


ARCADIA, Calif. - The 1940 judges' stand has been dismantled, the crowd-enhancing dummies all deflated, and the barn area has emerged from the past. Sigh. The "Seabiscuit" movie folk have departed and taken with them their magic, which means Santa Anita is out of the illusion business and back to the reality of racing in the cold, cruel modern world.

On Thursday, the longest meeting on the Southern California racing calendar will commence with a nine-race program, three stakes, and enough good will to last at least until the weekend. Or the next big rain.

These are testy times in the major leagues out West, what with ongoing labor and insurance problems, track surfaces inconsistent and troubled by weather, and an increasing frustration with the alienating affects of absentee racetrack ownership by large corporations.

Still, there is something special about opening day at Santa Anita that no amount of corporate branding can disguise. The 26th of December remains the one date on the California racing calendar etched in granite. Racing fans and racing families make opening day a traditional pilgrimage, and even though the crowds for weekday openers have dwindled to the 30,000 range, there is no mistaking the sense of celebration.

The seven-furlong Malibu Stakes has not always been the opening-day feature. Until 1984 it was the Palos Verdes at six furlongs, which meant that opening-day fans got to see such great sprinters as Porterhouse, Cyrano, Native Diver, Kissin' George, Ancient Title, and Chinook Pass at their very best.

Among the many things trainer Noble Threewitt has done in his 91 years (he will be 92 on Feb. 24) is win the Palos Verdes Handicap with King of Cricket on opening day of 1971. He was also among the 30,777 at Santa Anita's very first opening day - Dec. 25, 1934 - but he admits his attendance record has not been perfect over the ensuing 68 years. Imagine, letting World War II get in the way.

"It was always a pretty big deal when the Santa Anita meet came around," Threewitt said. "People would come down from San Francisco, from all over the place. It's a good day to win a race."

Trainer Eduardo Inda will try to add his name to the history of Santa Anita's opening day when he sends out American System in this year's $200,000 Malibu. The opposition offers a Chinese menu of choices, from hard-core burners like Mayakovsky, Total Limit, and My Cousin Matt, to long-range hopefuls Sunday Break, Castle Gandolfo, and USS Tinosa, all fugitives from last spring's Triple Crown.

Aaron and Marie Jones bought American System for $85,000 and set their sights accordingly. The colt performed modestly as a 2-year-old through October of 2001, placing in the Sunny Slope Stakes to Roman Dancer, but Inda and the Joneses sensed there was more lurking beneath American System's skin. So they turned him out to let him grow.

"Look at him now," said a proud Inda as he led a visitor to American System's Santa Anita stall. Groom Javier Ortiz pulled off the red Jones blanket and unhooked the colt from the back wall, turning him to reveal an efficient, dark bay package of almost perfect balance.

"You turn them out, and you never know until you see it happen with a horse like this," Inda said. "He changed from just okay to very nice."

So did his record. Since his re-emergence last July, American System has finished first in three of six starts (he lost one of those by DQ). He was third in his stakes debut last month after a tight, inside trip in the Underwood Handicap at Hollywood.

"He likes Santa Anita best though," Inda added. "He never runs a bad race here. I don't want to get too far ahead of things, but you know the next Breeders' Cup is right here. Maybe, if he keeps improving - who knows?"

Uneven and unfair to all concerned

Track operators please take note. It is no longer acceptable - from a public relations standpoint - to announce that a racing program has been canceled because jockeys refuse to ride, as was the case last Sunday when word came down from Golden Gate Fields that "jockeys deemed the rain-soaked racetrack to be 'uneven and unfair.' "

Consider the message this conveys. Management wringing its hands, anxious to get on with the show. Trainers and owners impatiently pawing the ground, dreading the loss of purse opportunities. And then the jockeys - suddenly the most powerful group in the game - refusing to risk the life and limb of either horses or humans in pursuit of parimutuel gain.

If the cancellation announcement from Golden Gate is taken at face value, it can be assumed that there is no one employed by the racetrack who can properly evaluate the condition of the track surface. In that case, the jockeys should be praised for sparing management the embarrassment of a potentially disastrous situation.

Most jockeys need a very compelling reason not to ride. For them it is no play, no pay, every day. But they are only part of the show. Racetrack operators are the real empressarios. They are obligated to present the sport under safe and relatively fair conditions. When weather gets in the way, management should consult with representatives of riders, trainers. and owners, and then take full responsibility for any decision to abort the program.