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Happy New Year: Santa Anita ready to open

Jan. 1 marks the start of the New Year for all of us humans. It also is the common birthday of all horses. That’s a good thing, too. It makes a large bag of carrots or mints a perfect birthday gift for a barn full of horses.

But for as long as I can recall, Dec. 26 was the start of my horse racing New Year. That’s because it is opening day at Santa Anita Park.

The Arcadia, Calif., track opens Saturday. If you have never been there, I ask, “Why not?”

When Dr. Charles H. Strub and movie mogul Hal Roach built Santa Anita Park in 1934, it was in the shadows of the magnificent San Gabriel Mountains. Bar none, it is the most beautiful backdrop in the world for any sports facility.

This is an important year for the track, and for the sport, on the heels of American Pharoah. For those who may have pulled a “Rip Van Winkle” in sports, American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

He was stabled and trained most of last year at Santa Anita Park for trainer Bob Baffert. Oddly enough, Baffert did not race American Pharoah in Southern California in 2015.

But wherever American Pharoah ran, he drew record crowds and spiked high TV ratings for each appearance. In fact, The Associated Press just named American Pharoah as the “Sports Story of the Year.”

The odds of another American Pharoah next year are likely slim and none. He was the third Kentucky Derby winner to come out of Southern California in the past four years. With talent such as American Pharoah (2015), California Chrome (2014) and I’ll Have Another (2012), Derby watchers need to look westward.

There will be two Grade 1 stakes on opening day — the La Brea and the Malibu.

The La Brea struck me not for the horses but for the trainers who have shipped out to Santa Anita Park. Dale Romans, Linda Rice, Kiaran McLaughlin and Dallas Stewart are top trainers from the East Coast who seldom race in California.

The favorite is Cavorting (5-2), who ran fourth last time in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. This is her first start outside of the Eastern time zone.

My choice is Ben’s Duchess (3-1), who has a fine record at Santa Anita Park. In five starts in Arcadia, she shows three wins and two thirds. Her trainer, John Sadler, is nearly a throw-out when he ships for out-of-town stakes. But at home in Southern California, he is as deadly as a cobra.

The Malibu has an interesting sidebar story in the big favorite, and most likely winner, Runhappy (6-5).

Last year, the colt won all five starts under trainer Maria Borell. She was then fired one day after winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. She is suing horse owner Jim McIngvale for 10 percent of the winnings from the stakes races.

His countersuit is Borell was a private trainer and is thus owed nothing but a previously specified amount.

Borell has just been hired by Drawing Away Stable. They use a lot of trainers, but for Borell, you have to reboot somewhere.

Runhappy will run under listed trainer Laura Wohlers, the sister-in-law of McIngvale. All eyes will be on Wohlers if this colt does not win.

— Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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