The suits were roaming Santa Anita Park in force on opening day, counting noses, checking the tote, fingering company-issued worry beads. You couldn't turn around without bumping into one of Tim Ritvo's highly motivated executive team, which was not a bad thing at all. If the preseason party line is to be taken seriously, this is the Most Important Meet Ever, a make-or-break line in the sand that will determine whether the historic track will survive the pressures of corporate profit demands or be retrofitted as a glorified annex to the horticultural splendor of the L.A. Arboretum across the street.
New versions of old bets were thrown to the simulcast/cyberspace players like bread to hungry bears. They responded with $14 million worth of thank-you notes. Another $3.3 million was bet on track by what was reported to be a crowd of 40,023, a number so charmingly round as to be almost believed.
Those "40,023" witnessed some fine sport, which should be the point of the exercise. All the rolling pick fives in the world never will be able to disguise a bad product. Still, if the goal is to attract a younger crowd with a high-tech betting menu, trendy food trucks, and an atmosphere of razzmatazz, they might want to tweak the cast of old farts stealing the show.
Three of the four graded stakes peppering the opening-day card were won by Kent Desormeaux, 47, Mike Smith, 52, and Gary Stevens, 54, punctuated only by the victory of Drayden Van Dyke, 23, in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes aboard City of Light. Stevens has socks older than Van Dyke.
The three senior amigos -- representing about 50 broken bones, a couple dozen surgeries, and more than 16,000 winners -- put on a clinic for their younger brethren that left no doubt as to their ongoing relevance, living proof of songwriter John Stewart's fine line, "No one's getting younger/but a few aren't getting old."
The Grade 2 San Antonio, at a mile and one-sixteenth, was supposed to be batting practice for Collected, whose date in the Pegasus World Cup has been chiseled in stone for months. Stevens, riding the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien winner Great Expectations, figured the favorite would be on his case from the start.
He was not, which made Gary smile. After leading his four opponents on a merry waltz through a half in 49.19, there was nothing left for Great Expectations to do except win by 3 1/4 lengths as the longest price in the short field, at 13-1, while Collected finished third.
Great Expectations, a son of Frost Giant, had beaten himself at the gate in his last two starts, most recently the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. On Tuesday he broke like a champ.
"His people are talking about the Pegasus now," Stevens said. "And why not? There were other horses in there today looking that way, and they all finished behind him."
Stevens is heading for Oaklawn Park next week to ride the meet. This reporter has said goodbye to Gary so many times there's an app on my phone just for the occasion. France, England, Hong Kong, Kentucky. A couple of retirements. Two joint-replacement surgeries. I'm not saying he'll be back, just as long as he never leaves.
Desormeaux, on the other hand, is going nowhere other than the 6,000-winner mark, which he should hit some time in 2018. His score aboard Bowies Hero in the Grade 2 Mathis Brothers Mile on opening day was at the direct expense of a sly ride by Javier Castellano on the Florida hotshot Kroy, who tried to pull a wire-to-wire of his own.
"I know he was going easy up there, but did you see my horse in behind him?" Desormeaux said. "I was water skiing. The other's tail was in his face, and I'm going, 'Whoa, boy. Shouldn't that be telling you to slow down?'"
Desormeaux got his colt settled, never flinching when Castellano bounced clear of the field turning for home. Once Bowies Hero straightened into the short stretch, Kent gave him a flurry left-handed then right, and went from a length behind to half a length in front at the wire in barely a dozen strides.
"That was fun," Desormeaux said.
After that it was Smith's turn in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes with Unique Bella, last seen burning cash at 11-10 in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. She broke uncharacteristically fast that day and ended up doing too much too early, fading to finish seventh.
For the seven-furlong La Brea, Unique Bella entered the ring with such regal disdain that poor Miss Sunset, winner of Keeneland's Grade 2 Raven Run, broke out in a terrible sweat at the sight. Jerry Hollendorfer estimates Unique Bella at 1,200 pounds, all of it choice.
This time, when the bell rang, Unique Bella opted for a distracted start, sat chilly behind the speed, and then ran down the classy Paradise Woods to win by three-quarters of a length.
"She didn't break that sharp, but she got comfortable right away," Smith said. "That makes all the difference with her, once she gets in that stride."
Words to live by. The start is only part of the race, or the season. It's what comes next that counts.