Ron Ellis is Californian through and through. Born in Glendale and a resident of Arcadia, home of Santa Anita Park, the trainer who turns 49 on March 10 has been a fixture in the Golden State for nearly 30 years. Few have a more vested interest in California racing than Ellis.
So when Santa Anita ushers in its 72nd campaign the day after Christmas, Ellis will be among those with interest at its apex, despite austere financial times.
"The economy’s probably going to hurt the most, but Santa Anita is still a marquee meet," Ellis said. "I look forward to it this year, because it appears that they’ve got their main track straightened out since it handled two inches of water recently really well. Rain obviously killed them last year (when 11 racing days were lost).
"Santa Anita opening is exciting, other than the economy’s bad. I’m sure they’re going to be down a little bit. Personally, I’ve got a couple horses we’re excited about, although they’re still basically unproven, other than Rail Trip, who was pretty impressive first time out. We’re hoping he’ll move forward. Who knows where he can go? He got a 102 Beyer first time out."
Rail Trip "moved forward" big time when he won an allowance race by 3½ lengths Saturday at Hollywood Park.
"We’ve also got Believe in Hope (an eventful third in last year’s Norfolk Stakes)," Ellis said. "I’m looking for him to hopefully hop on the Derby trail. He ran pretty good as a 2-year-old but he got sick and it lingered longer than I thought. I sent him to the hospital to have him checked and make sure he didn’t have any spots on his lungs, and he got a clean bill of health. So he’s back galloping and we’ll see where that leads.
"I’ve got about 40 horses all together, 24 I’ll take to Santa Anita. I’m going to stable the runners at Santa Anita. The last few years I’ve mostly stayed at Hollywood Park because I really like the track there, and Santa Anita’s track is so much different than Hollywood’s. Not that one’s better than the other, just that they’re different. I want the horses racing at Santa Anita to be there and train over that track.
"As I recall, Santa Anita played pretty fair, and I think it’s going to be reasonably fair. It seemed to me if horses went too fast, you could come from behind (and win). If they went slow, they could win going wire to wire. Speed was holding very well on the turf at Oak Tree, but I think that will even out as they put in that rye grass. That will thicken the grass. In the winter, it’s a lot more fair. With a newer main track surface, we don’t have much history to go on, but at Oak Tree, it was reasonably fair."
Unlike Ellis, Bob Baffert come up through his native Arizona, first as a jockey, then as a quarter horse trainer before skyrocketing to national prominence in the thoroughbred world by winning the Kentucky Derby with Silver Charm in 1997 after missing by a nose with Cavonnier a year earlier. He would go on to win the Derby twice more, with Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002.
"We always look forward to the Santa Anita winter meet," said Baffert, an eight-time Santa Anita champion, including seven in a row from 1996-97 through 2002-03. "As far as the main track, I guess we’ll know how it is as we go along. I’m always going to be a dirt guy. I prefer dirt. It will eventually come back. I sense they’re getting tired of it (synthetic surfaces)."
The 135th Kentucky Derby on May 2 is still more than four months away, but it’s never too soon to talk about Triple Crown prospects, even though Baffert lost last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Midshipman, who after that victory was moved to Dubai and trainer Saeed bin Suroor by the Godolphin Stable of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Early in November, the Sheikh purchased Hopeful and Champagne winner Vineyard Haven from Bobby Frankel for a reported $12 million. Both colts will start preparations for the Derby in Dubai.
"Pioneer of the Nile was very game in winning the Hollywood Futurity (by a nose)," Baffert said of his top Derby prospect, who was previously trained by Bill Mott. "This could be the horse that gets us back to the Derby. He is going to be a serious horse down the road when they start going even further," Baffert continued. "I really like him a lot. I’ve got some other unraced 2-year-olds that I like, and some coming back, like Del Conte (a late scratch from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf due to ankle swelling). I’m looking for that next Midshipman."
• Richard Shapiro unexpectedly resigned as chairman of the California Horse Racing Board effective Dec. 16 due to his frustration over criticism of his support of synthetic surfaces and his limitations on future pursuits, according to an upper echelon racing insider. Shapiro, a member of the CHRB since Oct. 14, 2004, recently was reappointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to a new four-year term.
"Shapiro was trying to do everything he thought was right and was getting beat up from all sides," the source said. "You get tired of being pounded. Plus, he felt he couldn’t accomplish any more on the Board, and could do a lot more if he wasn’t a regulator."
• Bobby Frankel, Santa Anita’s career leader in victories, was one shy of 900 going into the meet. "Santa Anita’s track right now is the best I’ve ever raced on," said Frankel, whose horses are ready to run, so bet with confidence.
• Good news, bad news: The good news, in the eighth race on a cold and rainy Dec. 17 at Hollywood Park, Corey Nakatani won for the first time since he broke his collar bone at Oak Tree last Sept. 24. The bad news, only 1,902 braved the miserable weather to see it.