02/27/2008 12:00AM

Air Commander draws post 14 for Big Cap

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When last seen on the racetrack, Air Commander ran the best race of his career, outfinishing the crack sprinter Johnny Eves to win the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 12.

The race took such a toll that trainer Bob Baffert abandoned plans to start Air Commander in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes earlier this month. Instead, he pointed Air Commander for Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, hoping to bring the 4-year-old colt into the race in a refreshed state.

Whether the plan works depends on how successful jockey Aaron Gryder can be at rating the eager Air Commander, who breaks from the outside post in a field of 14.

If Gryder can keep Air Commander from doing too much to soon in pursuit of expected pacesetter Monterey Jazz, the colt could be a factor in the stretch in a race loaded with closers.

"Aaron Gryder has ridden the horse and he knows him," Baffert said. "We'll get him out there and get him in his groove."

Owned by Faisal Salman and Robert Clay, Air Commander was a 52-1 outsider in the San Fernando. He is 20-1 on the morning line for the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap.

The distance will be a test for Air Commander and Monterey Jazz, who have never won beyond 1 1/8 miles.

"Monterey Jazz looked good winning the Strub," Baffert said. "He's the horse to beat."

Awesome Gem, third in the Breeders' Cup Classic last October, and third in the Gradeo2 San Antonio Handicap in his lone start this year on Feb. 9, is the 4-1 favorite on the morning line. The 5-year-old gelding is a slight choice over Monterey Jazz, at 5-1. Go Between, the winner of the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 26, and Tiago, second in the Strub, are 6-1.

One jockey that may have an advantage over his rivals is Garrett Gomez, who has ridden eight of the race's 14 entrants at one point or another. Gomez will ride Go Between, who is trained by Bill Mott and is the only invader in the large field.

"It gives me an advantage," Gomez said. "I know their tendencies and where they should be placed. It helps out a lot."

Gomez rode Champs Elysees to victory in the Grade 2 San Marcos Stakes here in January. Champs Elysees makes his 14th start and first on the main track.