ARCADIA, Calif. -- Some people still believe in Santa Claus and Brother Derek. Good luck cashing a bet on either one.
The winter racing season begins Tuesday at Santa Anita, where neither holiday cheer nor Brother Derek's $1.5 million bankroll are relevant in a seven-furlong sprint that is the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, the traditional opening-day feature the day after Christmas.
But change is afoot. Synthetic racing surfaces are replacing dirt, Bobby Frankel soon will pass Charlie Whittingham as the all-time leading trainer in Santa Anita history, and divisional hierarchies will undergo constant revision this winter.
The first shift is expected in the Malibu, which kicks off the three-race Strub Series for 4-year-olds of 2007. A two-turn front-runner, Brother Derek faces quicker one-turn specialists, including likely winner Arson Squad, Latent Heat, Da Stoops, and Midnight Lute.
The $250,000 Malibu will be run on dirt for the last time. Santa Anita will install a synthetic surface some time after the 85-day meets April 22. The record books also will be revised, as Frankel takes aim on Whittingham's record 869 wins at Santa Anita winter.
Frankel enters the meet with 851, only 18 behind Whittingham.
"I didn't realize I was that close," Frankel said, estimating he could set the record the first half of the meet. "It's always nice to have a record; it will be nice if it lasts a while. I have a lot of horses to run."
Frankel's arsenal includes Malibu contender Latent Heat, trying to rebound after a poor effort caused by illness; Down, third to Romance Is Diane in the Hollywood Starlet and aiming for the Santa Anita Oaks on March 11; On Board Again, pointing for the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 27 at Gulfstream and the Santa Anita Handicap on March 3; and Cantabria, a contender for the La Canada Series for 4-year-old fillies of 2007.
Frankel is also deep on turf. Three Valleys will stay in training and aim for the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile on March 3; Matriarch winner Price Tag will reappear in spring or summer; long-distance specialist King's Drama runs Dec. 31 in the San Gabriel; Citronnade goes in the San Gorgonio for fillies and mares Jan. 7; and Proudinsky returns in late January.
The only division in which Frankel is light is the glamour division - 3-year-olds aiming for the 2007 Santa Anita Derby. He does not expect Belmont maiden winners First Defence or Les Grand Trois to make the Derby, but improving Woodbine maiden winner Giant Gizmo will have every chance to show he is good enough.
Hollywood Futurity winner Stormello, trained by Bill Currin, enters winter as the top gun for the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, but fresh challenges will come at him in waves. The first good race for 2007 Derby hopefuls is race 3 on Tuesday, a seven-furlong maiden race in which Bob Baffert-trained Tenfold will be favored to win his second career start.
Aside from the Malibu, two other stakes will be run Tuesday. Porto Santo is favored in the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort for 3-year-olds on turf (race 7); Super Image is the horse to catch in the $125,000 Cal Breeders' Stakes for 2-year-old statebreds (race 6).
The Malibu is race 8 on the nine-race card, and marks the return of Arson Squad's trainer, Bruce Headley, who all but disappeared the past six weeks at Hollywood. Nov. 11 was his last starter.
"[Cushion Track] is an experiment, and I'm not into experimentation," Headley explained. "If it turns out fine, then great, but I don't have any trouble with the Santa Anita [dirt] track."
Neither does 4-for-8 Swaps Stakes winner Arson Squad, who has trained enthusiastically for the Malibu.
"He's really ready," Headley said after Arson Squad worked a 45.20-second half-mile last week. "He's older and stronger, and versatile."
Arson Squad is in post 2, but "going seven-eighths, it doesn't matter," Headley said.
Alex Solis will ride Arson Squad, relinquishing the mount on Brother Derek to Garrett Gomez. And maybe Brother Derek will defy conventional wisdom by winning a seven-furlong sprint, but the 6-for-13 Grade 1 winner is more effective around two turns.
Brother Derek could start favored in the Malibu, his first start since a bias-propelled fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Brother Derek entered the Hollywood Derby on Nov. 26, but colicked the day before and scratched.
Latent Heat is racing for the first time since a flat performance Oct. 13 at Keeneland.
"He was sick going in, and I probably shouldn't have run him," Frankel said.
Latent Heat has won 4 of 8, but the only time he earned a Beyer Figure close to the 105 Malibu par was in a five-horse field at Saratoga. Edgar Prado rides Latent Heat.
Front-runner Da Stoops makes his final career start in the Malibu, while Baffert stablemate Midnight Lute will rally from behind. The field also includes front-running graded stakes winner Sailors Sunset, Hyperbaric, Northern Soldier, Objective, Spring at Last, Potential, Monarcho Polo, and It's a Bird.