It might be too early to call it a trend, but there are signs of a possible resurgence in Southern California horse racing. Just two months after 61,114 showed up for the final day of the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, a post-Christmas crowd of 40,810 came out for opening day of the winter meeting on Friday at the Arcadia track.
Lured by near-perfect weather, with the picturesque backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance, fans waited until the eighth race to unleash their biggest roar for Shared Belief, the 3-year-old gelding who went off as the 1-2 favorite in the Grade I $301,000 Malibu Stakes and didn't disappoint.
Jockey Mike Smith asked Shared Belief to turn on his closing kick and gamely held off 70-1 Conquest Two Step to win by a neck. Chitu finished third.
There was no controversy and no rough start in the seven-furlong race unlike the last time Shared Belief raced at Santa Anita, when Bayern bumped him out of the gate during the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 1 and survived an inquiry to win. Shared Belief finished fourth.
"We put all that behind us," trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. "There's nothing we could do about what happened, so we forget about it and just remember that he's a good horse and we came back and won, so I feel like he really justified himself today."
It was the eighth win in nine outings and sixth stakes victory for Shared Belief, who ends 2014 as one of the top horses in the world. His connections will put together a racing plan for 2015, and it's almost certain there could be a racing rematch among Shared Belief, Bayern and the favorite to win horse of the year, California Chrome. That competition has helped energize racing fans in Southern California.
Hollendorfer also won the Grade I $301,000 La Brea Stakes with Sam's Sister, ridden by Elvis Trujillo. And jockey Tyler Baze rode Alert Bay to a neck victory in the Grade II $201,250 Mathis Brothers Mile.
Trainer Phil D'Amato, in his first year with his own stable, had a day to remember. He won back-to-back races, including his promising 2-year-old, Micks Miracle, who cruised to victory in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race.
"I had a great day," D'Amato said. "That 2-year-old is a very nice horse. I knew he had something special about him the first time I breezed him. Who knows how far we'll go with him. I remember as a little runt coming with my grandparents to Santa Anita. To win two races on opening day with a bunch of new owners, I couldn't be happier."