ARCADIA, Calif. -- The day after Christmas, Jay Robbins unwrapped his biggest present since the days when he trained Tiznow.
Johnny Eves, whom Robbins has deliberately brought through the class ladder, rewarded his trainer's patience by capturing the Grade 1, $250,000 Malibu Stakes in his graded stakes debut and 10th lifetime start on Wednesday's opening-day card at Santa Anita.
Johnny Eves was part of a three-way battle for the lead, but he shook off his rivals after fractions of 22.04 seconds for the opening quarter and 44.04 for a half-mile, then held off the late run of 42-1 shot Carrilero to win by a length in 1:21.08 for seven furlongs on Cushion Track.
Horse Greeley was another 1 1/2 lengths back in third, with Hurry Up Austin fourth in the field of 14 3-year-olds.
Johnny Eves ($24) gave jockey David Flores his third winner on the card, tops among riders on opening day.
Johnny Eves, a California-bred gelding by Skimming, has now won 5 times in 10 starts. He was coming off a win in a second-level allowance race at Hollywood Park on Nov. 25.
A crowd estimated by track officials at nearly 30,000 was in attendance for opening day. That was down slightly from last year's 32,931, but up from the 27,713 who attended in 2001, the last time Santa Anita opened on a Wednesday.
The track played fast all afternoon, in many ways resembling the old natural dirt surface, which produced quick times and tended to favor front-runners.
But there was still apprehension over the main track, which underwent significant work this month in an attempt to solve the riddle of why it does not drain properly. Cushion Track was initially installed here last summer, prior to the fall Oak Tree meeting.
"So far, we're all extremely happy that the track's open," Ron Charles, the president and chief executive officer of Santa Anita, said after Wednesday's fourth race. "It's playing quick, but hopefully it's playing fair. This is the first time we've raced on it since we added the new mixture of sand. Our main concern remains how it will handle the rain, and there is a forecast for rain on Friday.
"We'll probably have to treat it along the lines of a traditional dirt track until we find the culprit over why it won't drain through. In the back of our minds, there's still concern over how it will handle rain."
The 2-year-old colt Bob Black Jack set a track record in the day's second race when he sizzled seven furlongs in 1:20.37 to win the $138,375 California Breeders' Champion Stakes by 6 1/4 lengths over runner-up Dirty Dish Mitch, with Red Hot Flame another three-quarters of a length back in third.
Bob Black Jack ($6.20) led every step of the way, setting fractions of 22.28 seconds, 44.32, and 1:08.13 for the first six furlongs. Flores rode Bob Black Jack for trainer Jim Kasparoff, whose brother, Tim, owns Bob Black Jack with Jeff Harmon.
Aaron Gryder, who rode first-race winner Sweet August Moon, said the surface "felt real good."
"It's firm, but it's got a good cushion on it," Gryder said. "It was a little tighter this morning, but it was so cold, the weather probably affected it. I like the way it is now. There's a little fluff on top. It feels like it did at Oak Tree. They never went into that very much, either."
Santa Anita could not have asked for better weather. After a chilly morning, the afternoon brought high temperatures in the 60s, and with nary a cloud for miles, the San Gabriel Mountains loomed majestically over this classic Art Deco facility.
Opening day is one of the highlights on the Southern California racing calendar, in large part because of a popular wall calendar that is given away each year. This year's calendar focused on Santa Anita's deep jockey colony, and many jockeys were being asked to autograph their respective pages on the calendar as they walked back to the jockeys' room after each race.
The return of racing to Santa Anita brought back two other classy perennials. A hitch of Budweiser Clydesdales performed following the third race, bringing back memories of the years when Clydesdales were used to pull the starting gate here. And for the first time since early November, Southern California race fans were treated to the calls of track commentator Trevor Denman, who was calling the opening-day card for the 25th consecutive season.
Santa Anita, 7th Race - Dec. 26, 2007