For John Sadler, Sunday was the tale of a knee and a nose.
A bad knee kept the trainer from going to Santa Anita on the opening day of the racetrack's 74th winter/spring meeting. A nose was the margin by which the Sadler-trained Twirling Candy won the Grade I, $250,000 Malibu Stakes.
Charging down the stretch under the urging of jockey Joel Rosario, Twirling Candy caught Smiling Tiger and rider Russell Baze just before the wire to steal the win.
"The track was about this much too long," Baze joked.
The dramatic finish accomplished three things.
First, it gave Sadler a sweep of the afternoon's three major stakes races. He also won the Grade I, $250,000 La Brea Stakes with Switch and the Grade III, $150,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes with Sidney's Candy. By winning three consecutive graded stakes on the same day, Sadler set a Santa Anita record.
Second, Twirling Candy's winning time of 1:19.70 for the seven furlongs eclipsed the track record of 1:20 set 30 years ago by Spectacular Bid. Not a bad record to break, in other words.
Third, the victory was Rosario's third of the day — he also rode Switch and Sidney's Candy — to match fellow jockey Rafael Bejarano, who also won three races and also set a track record.
Bejarano, the leading rider at the previous three Santa Anita meetings, brought The Factor home first for trainer Bob Baffert in the fourth race, covering the six furlongs in a blazing 1:06.98 to erase the record of 1:07.20 set by Sunny Blossom 20 years ago.
All in all, it was record-breaking Sunday, a day when the rain stayed away but the fans did not. Attendance for the opening card was 34,268 — not exactly threatening the mark set on opening day in 1960, when 71,021 flocked to the Arcadia track, but respectable nonetheless.
But attendance was not the story, nor were the records. The almost audible sigh that went up after River Dance Joy crossed the wire, last in a field of 14 in the day's final race, told the real tale.
Eighty-nine horses went to the post and 89 horses safely reached the finish line.
That alone made it a good day for track officials, who had splashed out $3 million installing a new dirt racing surface to replace the troublesome former synthetic surface used for the last three years.
"I'm more happy with it being a safe day than anything else," said George Haines, Santa Anita Park's president and general manager. "That is everything to us right now."
A total of 14 1/4 inches of rain fell on the track in the eight days leading up to the opener, including three-quarters of an inch overnight on Saturday. But the surface was in excellent shape and was even upgraded from good to fast two races into Sunday's program.
"Given everything that we were facing with the weather and the track and everything, we're very pleased," Haines said. "This is a very good day for Santa Anita.
"This is a track that's less than 3 weeks old and still needs some tweaking here and there. We're going to listen to what the trainers and the riders have to say about it and [adjust] . . . to whatever they say and what we think is best for the horses.
"We've had a lot of feedback and it's overwhelmingly positive. They really like it. And that's a good thing. We put a lot of time and effort into this to make sure we got it right, and it looks as if we're real close."
In Sadler's absence, it was left to his assistant, Larry Benavidez, to field the questions, and after Twirling Candy had completed the stakes sweep for the barn, Benavidez was out of words.
"As you can tell, I lost my voice," he said. "I'm excited. It's just a fabulous day."