12/27/2007 12:00AM

Patience rewarded in Malibu

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - What was supposed to be a wide-open version of the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, played out on a picture postcard Santa Anita opening day, went terribly strange somewhere around the turn when the surprising Johnny Eves shook loose from his fellow pacesetters, opened sudden daylight on the field, and went on to win by a comfortable length.

In so doing, Johnny Eves added his name to a list of Malibu winners that includes Spectacular Bid, Round Table, Damascus, Buckpasser, Native Diver, and Precisionist, all members of the racing Hall of Fame. The Malibu also has been won by Banner Bob, Pac Mania, Powis Castle, King of the Heap, and Debonair Joe, which keeps things in perspective and serves to lend the Grade 1 race an egalitarian air. Let's just say it takes a good horse on the day to win it, no matter what he's done before or accomplishes after.

Where Johnny Eves will fit when the final tale is told is still very much in the air. So far, the ingredients of the narrative are these:

He is a homebred gelding who was foaled and raised at Ridgeley Farm, an oasis of Thoroughbred tradition now surrounded by more mundane real estate development near the inland Southern California town of Hemet.

Johnny Eves races for Sharon and Carl Hilliard of Del Mar, who missed the Malibu because they were traveling abroad, mourning the loss of a beloved family dog. The Malibu winner is trained by Jay Robbins, whose Los Angeles home is a haven for any number of four-footed strays. The Robbins Christmas card usually is decorated with the family's domesticated raccoon.

These are clearly animal lovers, which Johnny Eves can appreciate. He needed time as a 2-year-old, before he even started, to recover from a stress fracture of the tibia, the large bone of the upper hind leg linking the stifle to the hock. Then, six months ago, he underwent a minor procedure to remove a malignant lesion from the third lid of his right eye.

Before he came to Robbins, Johnny Eves was burdened with the name Fleeing Hemet, while trained by the irascible Warren Stute, a man notorious for speaking his mind and using very few words to get it done. The Hilliard's horse was not too far along before Ridgeley Farm's general manager, Pat Thompson, got a call from Stute, her trainer for more than 30 years.

"Pat," Stute said, "he looks like he might be a pretty good horse."

This, coming from Warren Stute, compares roughly to a Yankees scout calling the head office back in New York to report that "This kid DiMaggio can hit a little bit." Popes have been anointed with less certainty. Such news prompted Hilliard to put in for a change - flouting a racetrack superstition - and bestow the young horse with the name of her father.

Unfortunately, by the time the rechristened Johnny Eves was ready to return to training, the 85-year-old Stute was scaling back his stable because of ill health. Stute died on Aug. 9, 2007, three days after Johnny Eves won a first-level allowance race at Del Mar by four lengths in the fifth start of his career.

In choosing Robbins, the Hilliards sent their horse to one of racing's most enigmatic talents. He is widely respected by his peers but rarely used by the patrons with large and active wallets. Johnny Eves is one of only nine head currently under his care, which makes no sense, since Robbins, 62, has been training stakes winners for 30 years and his work with 2000 Horse of the Year and 2001 champion older male Tiznow will be legendary someday, if it isn't already. Both of Tiznow's campaigns were capped by victories in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but not until he recovered from a fractured tibia at age 2. Sound familiar?

Along the way, Tiznow finished second in the 2000 Pacific Classic at Del Mar in his first start against older runners. The winner that day was Skimming, the sire of Johnny Eves, although any further parallels will not be entertained. Johnny Eves is clearly a horse with distance limitations, and his only stakes attempt prior to the Malibu was a flop as the favorite in the California Cup Sprint on Nov. 4. Jockey David Flores threw that race out, based on a bad break, a bump, and pressure from both sides. They came right back to win an allowance race at Hollywood Park, encouraging Flores to get excited about the Malibu.

As for Robbins, Johnny Eves may have just put the trainer's name back in lights by defeating a field that included the winners of such events as the Blue Grass, the Del Mar Futurity, the Withers, the San Felipe, the Bay Meadows Derby, and the Affirmed, but don't look for him to pound his chest. The work is still in progress, and for Robbins, the ongoing key to the development of Johnny Eves is not in savoring the five races that he has won, but in understanding the five he lost.

"Let's face it, he'd never beaten horses like this before," Robbins said. "He'd trained really well, but I was taking a big leap of faith here."

Sometimes, as a finishing touch, that's exactly what it takes.