12/26/2002 12:00AM

Sun shines bright in racing's Arcadia home


ARCADIA, Calif. - The weather was sunny and mild, the mountains loomed over the track, a touch of snow was atop the ridges to the east, a large, enthusiastic crowd was on hand, D. Wayne Lukas looked like Santa Claus in his bright, red sport jacket, 90-year-old Mary Roney was in attendance, and the soothing tones of Trevor Denman cascaded over the public address system. In Southern California, it was starting to look a lot like the day after Christmas.

Santa Anita opened on Thursday for its 66th winter meeting, and the return to racing was greeted enthusiastically by horsemen and horseplayers alike. They were coming off a Hollywood Park meeting that was plagued by wet weather and short fields, and were greeted by their polar opposites on Thursday.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said Darrell Vienna, who might have been a touch biased, since he had just become the meet's leading trainer by winning the first race of the meet, with British import Revenante. "I hate it when you win a race, you're with an owner, you're all exhilarated, and there's no one in the stands. You come out here, there's lots of bodies, it feels like a day at the track should feel."

"There's a lot of people here," said trainer Bruce Jackson as he walked through the box seats. "It's a little different from Hollywood."

For David Anson, the opportunity to bet on full fields was alluring. Anson, a securities broker and the son of owner Ron Anson, came loaded for action.

"The field sizes, the diversity of horses - it makes a difference," Anson said. "You feel like you get a fair shake. You can have a 12-1 shot who can actually win. There's more opportunity gambling-wise. It's good gambling, a good atmosphere. It's not like you know who's going to win when they get to the quarter pole every race. It's just a lot better racing environment."

"This is a great backdrop," said Michael Bartman, a friend of Anson's. "And all the trainers want to run here."

Including Lukas. He had raced sparingly at Hollywood, but unleashed one of his best 2003 Kentucky Derby prospects when Scrimshaw got up in the final yards to win the third race in 1:08.30 for six furlongs on the fast main track. Scrimshaw, a 2-year-colt by Gulch, had won his lone previous start during Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. Outfitted in a fire-red sports coat, the likes of which seemingly are owned only by Lukas and Bobby Knight, Lukas could not be missed.

Roney could not be missed either. If it's opening day at Santa Anita, she has to be here. Roney - a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., who now lives in Dana Point, Calif. - was at Santa Anita's first day of racing, on Christmas Day, 1934, and has attended every opening day since. In honor of her 90th birthday on Thursday, Santa Anita named the third race after Roney, and she was in the winner's circle with Scrimshaw and Lukas.

Roney wasn't the only celebrity at the races. Two of the principals of the movie "Seabiscuit" - actor Tobey Maguire and director Gary Ross - were in attendance, as were retired jockey Chris McCarron, a consultant on the film, and jockey Gary Stevens, who is not riding while he completes his role as George Woolf in the movie.

Excessivepleasure cruises

In an undercard stakes, Excessivepleasure remained unbeaten by rallying to win the $125,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes.

Excessivepleasure, a 2-year-old gelding by In Excess, made a bold move on the turn to engage the leaders under jockey David Flores, then drew away powerfully for a five-length victory over Martinblestme. Judge Swiss was another 1 1/4 lengths back in third, with 3-2 favorite D's Bertrando fading to seventh in the eight-horse field.

Excessivepleasure was aided by a rapid early pace that sapped the front-runners. Excaper, D's Bertrando, and Slew's Prince dueled through fractions of 21.48 seconds and 43.76 for the first half-mile of the seven-furlong race. Excessivepleasure, who was sixth after a quarter-mile, completed the distance in 1:22.62.

Doug O'Neill trains Excessivepleasure, whose lone previous start was a victory against Cal-bred maidens on Nov. 16 at Hollywood. O'Neill, who was the winningest trainer at Hollywood, said Excessivepleasure may make his next start at Gulfstream Park in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash for 3-year-old males on Jan. 25.