Since he was 15 years old, trainer Ron Ellis said he has always known where he'd be spending the day after Christmas — opening day at Santa Anita.
"It's been an X on the calendar," the 54-year-old said.
In 1980, before a crowd of 66,599, Ellis won the Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita on the day after Christmas with the first horse he ever trained, To B. Or Not. It was a one-horse stable.
"I thought, that was it. I had reached the pinnacle. I was 20 years old. It was really exciting," he said.
Opening day for Santa Anita's winter meeting is Friday, and there's lots to be excited about.
Shared Belief, a candidate for horse of the year, is scheduled to have his final race of 2014 in the Grade I $300,000 Malibu Stakes at seven furlongs. There's also the Grade I $200,000 La Brea Stakes and the Grade II $200,000 Mathis Brothers Mile on a nine-race card Friday that has large fields and championship jockeys.
There will be much intrigue in Shared Belief's appearance, because the last time he raced was the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, in which the Bob Baffert-trained Bayern bumped Shared Belief at the start and survived an inquiry to win. Shared Belief ended up fourth.
In the Malibu Stakes, there will be four Baffert-trained horses trying to defeat Shared Belief.
Shared Belief was the champion 2-year-old of 2013, has won two Grade I races this year and has seven wins in eight lifetime starts with earnings of $1,852,200.
Opening day will feature such acclaimed jockeys as Joel Rosario, Gary Stevens, Mike Smith and Rafael Bejarano. There will be free admission to the infield and free parking if fans enter from the lot six entrance of the Arcadia track.
As for the excitement of opening day, Ellis said, "It signals the start of a new year for us in racing. We're always hopeful of finding that top horse."
One of the highlights of the winter meeting is the unveiling of promising 3-year-olds that hope to run in the Kentucky Derby next May.
Ellis thinks he will have a potential top 3-year-old in the Gomper, a son of Sky Mesa, who won his 2-year-old debut on Dec. 5 at Los Alamitos at 5 1/2 furlongs.
"I'm hoping he can turn into a serious 3-year-old," Ellis said. "Everybody is hoping to catch Derby fever."
And don't expect to find Ellis at a shopping mall on Friday.
"I can wait a couple of days to return what I got," he said.
Racing at Santa Anita
What: 78th winter Santa Anita meeting.
When: Friday through April 19; racing Thursdays through Sundays. First post is noon on Friday; 12:30 p.m. rest of the meeting.
Big races: $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, March 7; $1-million Santa Anita Derby, April 4.
Tickets: $5 general admission; $10 clubhouse. Free admission for infield on weekends.