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Surface switch, takeout increase add intrigue at Santa Anita

The day after Christmas has always been special for horse racing fans because it’s opening day at Santa Anita Park. This year’s meet will carry more weight than normal. A surface switch from synthetics back to dirt plus an impending takeout increase, due to start Jan. 1, add intrigue to the usual anticipation.

Whether these changes succeed or not will depend on the flow of horseplayer betting dollars and on owners and trainers entering their horses. It’s the ultimate litmus test for which direction California racing will go from here — up, down or sideways.

As for the first day of Santa Anita racing, nine full fields is a welcome relief from the steady diet of short fields at Hollywood Park. Four stakes, including two Grade I races (Malibu and La Brea), make for a spicy start.

The card includes three dirt races before the four stakes sequence. Even that tiny sample might help in figuring out how the main track will play. In the past, speed was usually king. But with a different mixture of materials, it’ll be interesting to see what track bias sinks in.

The Malibu features a fascinating field of 11, including two Eastern-based colts in Thiskyhasnolimit and Noble’s Promise. Both have proven dirt form, which oddly enough gives them a small edge over the local horses.

Some of the Malibu favorites — Alcindor, Setsuko and Twirling Candy — have no dirt race experience. They have pedigree to suggest they will adapt to dirt, and switching from synthetics to dirt is an easier task.

The La Brea features a wide-open field of 13 fillies. Switch will be favored off a good second in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, but she is the kind of chalk you try to beat. Upset possibilities include Malibu Pier, Hard Way Ten, Always a Princess and Champagne d’Oro.

The Malibu and La Brea are seven-furlong races, my favorite distance to handicap. I like the puzzle of matching sprinters stretching out farther than six furlongs against distance horses shortening up from a route race.

Finally, the Sir Beaufort is the one grass stakes on opening day and figures to have a heavy favorite in Sidney’s Candy. He is bullet-fast, and few are brave enough to challenge him early.

■ ROMERO FEATURED — Hall of Fame jockey Randy Romero will be featured on “Inside Information” on HRTV at 6 p.m. Sunday. His work on undefeated mare Personal Ensign highlighted his incredible life story.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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