12/23/2013 2:52PM

Santa Anita: Malibu field filled with speed, talent

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Distinctiv Passion needs to harness his speed to win the seven-furlong Malibu.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Seven furlongs is an awkward distance that is too far for some and too short for others. For speedster Distinctiv Passion, the final furlong of the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes will be a challenge.

“Seven furlongs might be a mile and a quarter to him,” trainer Jeff Bonde admits. “I just know he likes that track, and he is hard to slow down.”

There will be no slowdown Thursday, when Distinctiv Passion will try to wire a field of 3-year-olds in the seven-furlong Malibu. The $300,000 race is the traditional opening-day feature at Santa Anita, which in 2014 will be anything but traditional.

[Santa Anita opening day: Get PPs, watch Thursday's card live]

Santa Anita will stay open for six months until late June, filling a gap left by Hollywood Park’s closure. Change is happening in California, and by the time Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Secret Circle returns early in the year, the sprint division will be a lot deeper.

The 12-horse Malibu sets the tone, with sprinters, routers, and shippers. And though Flashback will be among the favorites, trainer Bob Baffert is already looking forward to Jan. 18 when Flashback stretches out for the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Strub.

“He’s going to be so much better going two turns,” Baffert said. “Last year, he wanted to get a little bit rank and wanted to get it on. This year, he is very, very relaxed.”

Flashback was sidelined with a knee chip after finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby. Flashback has two wins and three seconds from five starts and is one of three Baffert starters in the field. His others, Shakin It Up and Zee Bros, return from layoffs of six months or more.

In his Nov. 2 comeback, Flashback finished second behind Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Zeewat in the Damascus at Santa Anita. Those two meet again in the Malibu, and both are likely to be flattered by a fast pace. Along with Distinctiv Passion, front-runners include Heir of Storm, Zee Bros, and Bakken.

“There is plenty of speed in there,” Hollendorfer assistant Dan Ward said.

He said that 6-for-11 Zeewat is training better now than before the Damascus. Zeewat galloped Monday at Hollywood and was scheduled to ship Monday to Santa Anita.

While the Malibu appears to set up for Flashback and Zeewat, they can only win if Distinctiv Passion is unable to stay seven furlongs. Bonde recognizes the challenge, but hopes Distinctiv Passion is learning to ration his speed.

“This will be a test,” he said. “We worked hard getting him to relax.”

Distinctiv Passion ran off in his most recent start Oct. 5, finishing third after setting the fastest half-mile of the fall meet, a wicked 43.69-second half in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship.

Distinctiv Passion must use moderation Thursday to survive seven furlongs. If he cannot, Bonde can shorten him up. Bonde also trains Grade 3 winner Majestic Stride, giving him two of the circuit’s top sprinters. Distinctiv Passion is 2 for 3 at Santa Anita, and 4 of 9 overall.

The top shipper is Bakken, who is 2 for 2, with both races having come in New York. Although a Grade 1 seems ambitious for a first-level allowance winner, trainer Chad Brown believes Bakken is more than ordinary.

“We thought he was one of our best 2-year-olds, if not our best,” Brown said.

The colt’s juvenile campaign never got off the ground.

“He had a couple of different issues,” Brown said without being specific.

Bakken finally made his career debut as a 3-year-old Oct. 13 at Belmont, winning wire to wire by more than six, followed by another front-running win Nov. 23 at Aqueduct. Brown is confident Bakken does not require the lead.

“I’d be surprised if he wasn’t able to rate,” Brown said. “He drew a good post [10], near the outside.”

Heir of Storm did not draw well, post 3, but there is no doubt he has improved. Purchased privately in fall and transferred to trainer Peter Miller, Heir of Storm crushed a first-level allowance Nov. 1 by more than four lengths. The odds were crazy – he returned $77.60.

“It was either the dirt, or blinkers, or both,” Miller said. “If you go strictly on sheets and Beyers, he’s one of the favorites. He’s as fast as anyone in the race. He doesn’t need the lead. I expect to be sitting second or third, and get first run.”

Lightly raced Demonic is using the Malibu as a prep race for the Strub. The others in the field are Syndicated, Central Banker, Holy Lute, and Our Double Play.

Only one favorite has won the Malibu since 1996 – The Factor in 2011. The Malibu is race 8 on a nine-race card.