By Terry Miller
While there were many winners during Boxing Day’s opener at Santa Anita, none could actually top that of Paddock Guard John Shear, 91, returning to his job at the track after facing a near death experience last spring when he saved a young girl from a bolting horse.
Shear threw himself in front of the horse last spring, causing himself great bodily injury that landed him in hospital for several weeks. Doctors and nurses at Huntington Hospital said it was truly a miracle that Shear survived such traumatic injuries.Although his family knew all the time he’d pull through.
“It’s good to be back…” Shear told Beacon Media Monday. “I feel great” he said as he walked briskly like that of a man 60 years his junior.
Shear was back at his usual station protecting the public from horses as they approached the tunnel to the main track in preparation for each race.
Scores of people wanted to shake hands with Shear have their photo taken with the famous hero and just say ‘thank you’.
Meanwhile the races took center stage with some surprises and a whole lot of racing fun:
While Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert filled a significant blank in his extensive resume by winning the Grade I Malibu Stakes with 5-2 choice The Factor, Santa Anita turned back the clock 17 years Monday with an opening day crowd of 44,579, its largest opening day throng since 46,904 attended in 1994.
Baffert entered four 3-year-olds in the field of 10 after citing the $300,000 Malibu at seven furlongs as the most glaring omission on his glistening record, but it was the enigmatic The Factor who rose to the occasion.
With Martin Garcia aboard, the gray colt with the name taken from Bill O’Reilly’s widely-watched cable news show put on quite a show while timed in 1:19.89.
Breaking on the extreme outside, The Factor went directly to the lead, but soon ceded it to Centralinteligence and stablemate Hoorayforhollywood. He regained the advantage nearing the far turn.
In the stretch, The Factor gamely resisted a challenge by runner-up Rothko, ridden by Corey Nakatani, before drawing off to win by 3 ½ widening lengths. Third-place Associate, the 7-2 second choice with Ramon Dominguez in the saddle, rallied for last to finish 2 ¼ lengths behind Rothko.
As a result, The Factor rebounded from a pair of performances that deeply disappointed Baffert. Following a victory in the Grade I Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar in August, The Factor faltered to fourth as the 2-5 choice in Santa Anita’s Grade I Ancient Title Stakes in October. One month later, he fell back to eighth at odds of 7-1 in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs. Both races were run from the rail post position.
On Monday, he accomplished something 23 other runners from the Baffert stable, including three this year, failed to do. He won the Malibu. “It is a good feeling,” Baffert said.
He briefly reviewed The Factor’s recent efforts. “He ran great at Del Mar,” he said. “In the Breeders’ Cup, I thought he’d really run well, but he just couldn’t get untracked on that track at Churchill Downs that day. But he likes this track and has really been training well.
“It’s exciting to win the Malibu,’ Baffert continued. “It’s a great race, some great horses have won it, some great trainers. It was lacking on my resume. I can put it on my website tonight. When The Factor runs his race, it’s going to be tough to really beat him. The Factor we know showed up today.”
“He was really sharp and ready to win,” Garcia said. “Plus, he really likes this track. I decided to let him run and put me wherever he wanted to put me, and look at what he did. I don’t think there was a horse that could beat him today.”
The Factor paid $7.20, $4.80 and $3.60. Rothko returned $6 and $4. The show price on Associate was $3.60. The victory was The Factor’s fifth in nine starts. The winning purse of $180,000 raised his career earnings to $652,180 for owners Fog City Stable and George Bolton.
On a picture perfect day, the large crowd marked the first opening day crowd over 40,000 since 2002. It was up 30 percent over the previous year’s on-track attendance of 34,268. The on-track handle of $4,246,751 was an increase of 10 percent over 2010. The overall handle, $12,866,300, was up 9 percent.
Heavily favored Mr. Commons burst between rivals in midstretch to dismantle his opposition while going on to a 3 ¼ -length triumph in the Grade II, $150,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes for 3-year-olds at one mile on turf.
“Since I got through, it was great,” said Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith following his third victory of the afternoon. “But I’ve learned you could point this horse at a wall and he’ll run through it if you ask him to.”
Irish Art, who defeated Ultimate Eagle by three-quarters of a length for the place, was no match for the winner who was clocked in 1:33.84 for the mile.
Mr. Commons, a son of Artie Schiller trained by John Shirreffs, was making his first start since finishing a creditable fifth in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5.
“It was good to have Mike Smith back in the saddle like that,” Shirreffs said. “Whatever Mike wants to do, I’m just fine with that. It’s better to have a win on Opening Day than to have your first one on Closing Day.”
Smith had one horse beaten during the early going of the eight-horse Sir Beaufort. Rallying into the stretch, Mr. Commons nearly ran up onto the heels of a rival before Smith’s maneuver that allowed the winner to surge through a slim opening and win under a hand ride.
The bay colt, owned by St. George Farm Racing of Ian Banwell, earned $90,000 for the victory to elevate his career earnings to $483,660 from a 3-3-1 record in 10 starts.
After fading badly while going one mile on turf in Hollywood Park’s Generous Stakes last month, Got Even ran away from his opposition over seven furlongs in the $100,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes which was run as race seven.
With Garrett Gomez at the controls, Got Even took command at the start and was never headed to defeat runner-up Exotic Slew by 4 ¼ lengths. Passing Game finished third, another nose back in the field of nine. The final time was 1:21.39.
“I really didn’t expect him to show that much speed, but he was doing it well, with his ears up,” Gomez said after dismounting from the 12-1 winner. “I knew he was shortening up and I really didn’t know what to expect, but he was able to clear them and stretch them out pretty good. The way it worked out, he took most of the run out of them.”
Stoney Fleece, the 2-1 favorite, never threatened while checking in fifth. Motown Men, the 5-2 second choice, finished seventh after stumbling badly at the start.
“He likes this racetrack,” said Peter Miller, who trains Got Even. “He’s gotten better and better since we gelded him at the Del Mar meet, and that’s the only thing I can really point to that turned him around. I was watching the race and I kept saying, ‘When’s he going to stop?’ and he never did.”
Got Even rewarded his backers at $27.20 while securing his third win in eight starts for the partnership of Bruce Chandler, Jeff Fink and Marc Umeda. The winning purse of $60,000 increased his earnings to $105,800.
The fillies division of the $100,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes went to odds-on favorite Ismene, who dominated five opposing 2-year-old fillies by 2 ¾ lengths under Smith’s hand ride while leading from start to finish.
Ismene, thus, remained unbeaten in three career starts for owner Stephen Ferraro and trainer Bill Spawr while traversing seven furlongs in 1:21.61. Willa B Awesome finished second, 1 ¾ lengths ahead of Warren’s Amber. “We ran into a monster,” commented Martin Pedroza, who rode the runner-up.
“She’s really talented, to say the least,” Smith said in the winner’s circle. “What’s exciting about her is there’s room to improve.” Spawr, who also conditions 2011 Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion Amazombie, acknowledged that the homebred daughter of Tribal Rule has as much potential as any horse he’s ever trained.
“Bill’s done a magnificent job,” said Ferraro. “I’ve definitely had thoughts about her 3-year-old year, but in the end, it’ll be Bill’s decision. Hopefully, she’ll be an Oaks-type filly.”
Ismene, who paid $3.20 for her victory, ran her earnings to $150,630. “We’ll give her a week off and see what we have,” Spawr said. “Then we’ll decide what to do with her next.”
Following Monday’s opening day, Santa Anita will be dark on Tuesday and Wednesday before commencing five successive days of racing on Thursday.