It is tempting to take advantage of Santa Anita Park's opening day Tuesday by launching into a sweaty reminiscence of "how things have changed." Of how the Southern California circuit is a dim shadow of its glorious past. Of how the average ontrack attendance has declined by 20,000 souls over the past 30 years. Or of names like Shoemaker, Frankel, and Whittingham, as if summoning their ghosts could make things right.
Instead, let's tap into the opening-day vibe as a celebration of renewal, clean slates, and fresh second acts. From the beginning, the Santa Anita opener -- which was Dec. 25, 1934 -- has represented the dawn of a new season. Campaigns commence. Comebacks staged. Never mind what the calendar says.
In this spirit, the four graded stakes being presented on Tuesday all look toward goals of 2018, rather than embellishments of sad old '17. The Mathis Brothers Mile on grass pushes a reset button for the division, which leads to the Kilroe Mile and beyond. The Malibu, once the centerpiece of opening day, is being pillaged once again this year by invaders, while the La Brea, also at seven furlongs, dares anyone to show up who thinks they can handle the local fillies Unique Bella, Paradise Woods, and Miss Sunset. The whole bunch is about to turn 4, and a world where Gun Runner, World Approval, and Forever Unbridled lurk.
The new stakes shooter on opening day is the San Antonio, now enlisted in service to the Pegasus World Cup at the end of January -- at Gulfstream Park. Such intramural synergy is to be expected, since the Stronach Group owns both tracks. Last season, the San Pasqual was shifted to New Year's Day as a Pegasus prep (Arrogate was entered and scratched). This year, the San Pasqual has replaced the San Antonio in early February and will be run at a mile and one-eighth, while the San Antonio was shortened to 1 1/16 miles for its debut on opening day. If the reader is confused, join the club.
The new San Antonio has done its job and attracted at least one horse who is heading for the Pegasus. Collected, winner of the Californian at Santa Anita last spring, can strut his considerable stuff without fear of being upstaged by former stablemate Arrogate, who would steal the headlines even when Collected beat him, like he did in the Pacific Classic. When last seen in the afternoon, Collected was giving valiant chase to Gun Runner at the end of the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar, well clear of fifth-place Arrogate.
Three weeks later, in the Native Diver Stakes at Del Mar, 4-year-old Prime Attraction unleashed the best race of his 12-start career to win with consummate authority. He looked the part in the paddock that day and ran accordingly, providing Victor Espinoza, trainer Jim Cassidy, and owner Deron Pearson the luxury of heightened expectations. Prime Attraction's name was even being mentioned as a possible player in the Pegasus World Cup mix, with its million-dollar buy-in.
"I've had Stronach people calling me about the Pegasus the last three weeks," Cassidy said. "As far as I'm concerned, if he runs good in here you've got to take him."
As president of California Thoroughbred Trainers, Cassidy has had his attention divided the past two weeks in the aftermath of the San Luis Rey Downs fire. He was still feeling the effects of a recent visit to the site.
"It was very depressing," Cassidy said. "It brought tears to my eyes. When I see pictures of those horses who got scalded I want to throw up."
He earned the right.
"The first horse I owned was killed in a fire in the late sixties, up in Muttontown, Long Island," Cassidy said. "It was Washington's birthday. We had 15 horses, and the whole barn burned. All 15, torched."
Cassidy is 72, which means there have been literally hundreds of horses in his life since then, including the graded stakes winners Evening Jewel, Ticker Tape, Singhalese, The Usual Q. T., Tom's Tribute, and now Prime Attraction. As good as they've been, none of them could ever crowd out the memory of his first.
"He was just an old Appaloosa, a nice riding horse," Cassidy said. "I called him Pecos."
Prime Attraction, a son of Unbridled's Song, has been a challenge from the start, chock full of undisciplined talent.
"He's got a lot of natural speed, but he's the kind of horse you can't take hold of, because he will take off and get in a speed duel going three-quarters in ten-and-something," Cassidy said. "That'll be the end of him."
That is exactly what happened in the Californian and the Gold Cup at Santa Anita last spring, when Prime Attraction fired out of the gate then faded. Cassidy changed riders and surfaces, hoping grass races would give his colt a break on the pace, and he was right. After two very good stakes tries on turf, Prime Attraction went back to dirt in the Native Diver.
"I remember in the early days, an allowance race, and a horse tried to get by him," Cassidy said. "He wouldn't have anything to do with that. Victor knows him, and if he gets the right trip, he's tough,"