The scenery will be as gorgeous as ever during the Santa Anita winter-spring meet that opens today with its traditional day-after-Christmas start, but the racing world has shifted a little bit.
After Hollywood Park became the first track in California to install a synthetic racing surface last summer -- a move Santa Anita will follow this summer -- scores of horses were moved to Hollywood for training after enthusiastic reactions.
Santa Anita has the glamour and attendance, but for the moment, Hollywood has the horses.
Santa Anita officials nevertheless are hoping for some bounce from a successful Hollywood meet that saw larger field sizes and attracted a division from Todd Pletcher, the nation’s dominant trainer.
You won’t find Pletcher’s name in any programs at the start of the Santa Anita meet, however. His horses will run under the name of assistant Michael McCarthy as Pletcher serves a 45-day ban that begins Wednesday and runs through Feb. 10 because one of his horses tested positive for mepivicaine in 2004.
A New York appeals court recently upheld Pletcher’s suspension, and though he might appeal in federal court, he is serving the suspension now to avoid being suspended at a more crucial time, such as the Triple Crown season.
The appeal of training at Hollywood has become very clear, but how that will affect racing at Santa Anita remains to be seen.
Dan Hendricks, a trainer loyal to Santa Anita who moved his runners to Hollywood until Santa Anita replaces its track, will take a wait-and-see approach but is starting Brother Derek -- fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic -- in today’s Grade I Malibu Stakes, shipping him over from Hollywood.
“This [Hollywood] track is better on the horses than the dirt track. It’s as simple as that,” Hendricks said.
Brother Derek will have a new jockey after Alex Solis, his rider in each of his 13 starts, decided to ride trainer Bruce Headley’s Arson Squad in the $250,000 race for 3-year-olds instead.
Arson Squad has four wins and three thirds in eight starts coming into the race, which at only seven furlongs is shorter than Brother Derek’s typical distance. Garrett Gomez, the nation’s leading jockey in purse money, picked up the mount.
The other top jockey of the year, Edgar Prado, who rode Barbaro in the Derby and the ill-fated Preakness, also will be on hand for opening day, making the trip west to ride trainer Bobby Frankel’s Latent Heat in the Malibu.
Also visiting is Russell Baze, the Northern California rider who recently broke Laffit Pincay’s career record for victories. Baze will ride Super Image today in the $125,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes.
With second cousins Tyler Baze and Michael Baze also riding at Santa Anita today, the extended family is booked for 11 mounts, with at least one of them riding in seven of the nine races.
One top rider who will be notably absent is Patrick Valenzuela, who cracked three ribs when he was kicked in the paddock at Hollywood Park on Nov. 26 but hopes to resume riding by New Year’s Day, agent Jim Pegram said.
Although Santa Anita will have fewer horses in its stable area -- perhaps 1,600 or 1,700 compared to the usual 1,900, racing secretary Rick Hammerle estimated -- officials are hoping for a boost from Hollywood’s recent success.
“Our expectations are always high,” Hammerle said. “We feel probably even more anxious this year, in a good way, because of the way Hollywood Park ended up. Rarely have we gone in with momentum. But this year, for the first year I can remember in the recent past, we’re coming off a really good Hollywood Park meet.”
The average field size at Hollywood Park was 8.5, up 13% from 2005, and the stable area was full for the first time in more than a decade, with several trainers from the East shipping in horses and such prominent trainers as Richard Mandella and Vladimir Cerin among those who moved horses from Santa Anita.
Much of the focus of the Santa Anita meet is on the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap March 3 and the Derby prep races that culminate in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
Stormello, winner of the Hollywood Futurity, is the early leader of the West Coast hopefuls for the Derby, with trainer Doug O’Neill’s Great Hunter and Liquidity among the others.
Pletcher’s Circular Quay, second to Street Sense in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is stabled at Hollywood, but it isn’t certain he’s pointed to the Santa Anita Derby or other California prep races.
“It hasn’t been decided,” said McCarthy, adding that timing will be a central issue in deciding where Circular Quay is entered. “It’s about him telling us when he’s ready.”
Pletcher has 17 horses in his Hollywood barn, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be racing at Santa Anita, though McCarthy said he plans to enter half a dozen in the first two weeks of the meet.
Others are pointed toward races at Gulfstream in Florida or the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, said McCarthy, who grew up in Arcadia and was an assistant to Ben Cecil before going to work for Pletcher in 2002, most recently running the Churchill Downs operation.
“After the first of the year, we’ll be shipping horses back east for different races,” McCarthy said. “We’ve never been afraid to go where the money is.”
* Dates: Today-April 22 (Dark this Wednesday and usually Mondays and Tuesdays, except for selected holidays).
* Post times: 1 p.m. on weekdays; 12:30 p.m. on weekends and holidays with the following exceptions: 11 a.m. on Feb. 4; noon today, Jan. 27, March 3 and April 7.
* Significant races: $250,000 Malibu, today; $250,000 La Brea Stakes, Dec. 30; Sunshine Millions Day, Jan. 27; $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes. Feb. 10; $250,000 Santa Maria Handicap, Feb. 10; $300,000 Kilroe Mile and $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, March 3; $300,000 Santa Margarita Handicap, March 10; $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks, March 11, and $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, April 7.
* Leading jockey (2005-06 meet): Patrick Valenzuela, 77 wins.
* Leading trainer (2005-06 meet): Doug O’Neill, 50 wins.
-- BOB MIESZERSKI