12/26/2008 12:00AM

Santa Anita opener draws 33,000


ARCADIA, Calif. - Even in face of an economic climate that has had tracks scrambling for customers and betting revenue, Santa Anita provided a glorious counterpoint on its opening day Friday. Under sunny skies, a crowd estimated by track officials at 33,000 showed up for the start of the 72nd winter meeting. Perhaps it was a temporary respite from the doom and gloom of these times, or the lure of seeing racing in such a magnificent setting. Maybe it was the free calendar. But Santa Anita was showing off on Friday.

The day was not without a hitch. In the very first race of the day, for 2-year-old maiden claimers, two horses were pulled up, one with injuries that proved fatal. Warren's Kenzo, making his fifth start, all in maiden-claiming races, fractured sesamoids in his right front ankle while going around the first turn and later was euthanized.

It was an inauspicious start over a Pro-Ride surface that received such rave reviews during the Breeders' Cup two months ago. But the jockeys who rode in the race said the surface felt fine, and had come through the recent wet weather in excellent condition.

"Before it would take a couple of days to dry out," said jockey Victor Espinoza, who won the first race on 12-1 shot Urban Cat. "This track feels like it didn't even rain. This track is really going to be great in the wintertime."

"The track feels good," jockey Alex Solis said. "The rain did it some good. It's more settled."

Within an hour, the promise of racing's new year was on display. Point Encounter came into the day's third race as one of the most talked-about 2-year-olds on the grounds. He ran to his advance notices. Despite being a large son of Point Given, Point Encounter broke sharply, relaxed for jockey Mike Smith while battling for the lead, then drew off to win by 1 3/4 lengths in a swift 1:14.81 for 6 1/2 furlongs.

"I didn't expect him to show that much speed," said his trainer, Carla Gaines. "It makes your job easy when you have a horse like that."

"He was pretty impressive," Smith said. "He's so smooth. He's so smart, you can do anything with him."

Rafael Bejarano, the meet's leading rider one year ago, picked up his first win of this season when guiding 7-1 shot All Saint to a late-running victory in the $125,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes, the day's sixth race.

All Saint ($17.20) ran down pacesetter Feisty Suances to win by one length in 1:22.07 for seven furlongs on Pro-Ride. Atticus Jack, who was roughed up at the start, rallied for third, a neck behind Feisty Suances.

Triphon Dall trains All Saint, a 2-year-old colt by Skimming, for owner Eduardo Gamez.

After a week of wintry weather, Santa Anita's opening day was blessedly free of rain, but the chilly temperatures, and a biting wind, remained. The temperature at first post was 57 degrees, but the wind made it feel colder, especially in areas that were shaded.

The wind, though, left gorgeously clear skies, and the nearby San Gabriel Mountains looked close enough to touch. The top eastern portions of the range were covered in snow.

The recent rain - about three inches over 10 days, according to Rick Hammerle, Santa Anita's racing secretary - did force the three grass races scheduled for Friday from the turf to the main track, including the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort Stakes for 3-year-olds. A total of 14 horses were scratched from the three grass races, including four from the Sir Beaufort.

"The last thing we wanted to do was take a graded stakes race off the turf, but it's been so cold it hasn't dried out enough," Hammerle said. "There was ice on top of the turf this morning. I felt like I was at the Meadowlands. The main track had frost on both sides of it.

"If this was March, we'd be running on it, but on opening day, we didn't want to get the turf all torn up."