10/04/2008 12:00AM

Arson Squad ends drought in Meadowlands Cup


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Arson Squad celebrated his return to a dirt track with a rousing 2 1/2-length win over Anak Nakal on Friday night in the Grade 2, $350,000 Meadowlands Cup.

The victory was the first for the 5-year-old gelding since the 2007 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, the last time he had competed on dirt.

His form went south when California's tracks converted to synthetic surfaces. After seven straight loses at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Hollywood Park, Arson Squad ($10.80) came east from trainer Bruce Headley to Rick Dutrow Jr. after running seventh in the Pat O'Brien Handicap in late August.

"He didn't like the synthetic tracks in California," Dutrow said. "His previous trainer did a great job with him. We were looking for a mile-and-an-eighth race for him and this fit perfectly."

So did the pace scenario in the 31st running of the Meadowlands Cup.

Past the Point, the 8-5 favorite, and Timber Reserve, the 2-1 second choice, hooked up right from the start in a very aggressive pace: 22.88 seconds, 45.91, and 1:10.12.

Something had to give, and it was two pacesetters.

Meanwhile, at the back of the pack, Arson Squad had only one horse beaten - Anak Nakal.

On a track that usually favors speed and punishes laggards, the trailers had a night to remember.

Edgar Prado, riding Arson Squad for the first time, let his horse settle behind the hot pace.

"He broke good, but quickly we were pretty far back," Prado said. "I just sat on him and took my time. Going around the final turn, I knew we had a good chance and I wasn't even asking him."

Arson Squad advanced between rivals and kicked clear in the final sixteenth of a mile.

The time in the 1 1/8-mile race was 1:48.81 on a fast track.

Dutrow won his second straight Meadowlands Cup, having scored with Diamond Stripes last year.

That victory earned Diamond Stripes a shot at the Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park, where he ran eighth.

With this year's Breeders' Cup run on a synthetic track, Dutrow sees no point sending Arson Squad back to Santa Anita, given the past failures.

"I can't see him going back to California," Dutrow said. "The Clark Handicap would likely be the next step."

The $500,000 Clark is Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs.

Pennsylvania Derby winner Anak Nakal turned in a big effort while facing older horses for the first time. He got clobbered at the break when double-teamed on both sides by Past the Point and P V Lightening.

His natural closing style, and the brisk pace, gave jockey Joe Bravo time to settle the colt before launching a six-wide move to nose out Timber Reserve for second.

"Coming out of the gate, we got slammed on both sides," Bravo said. "If Arson Squad doesn't find room turning for home, we had it."

Nick Zito, who trains Anak Nakal, scratched Da' Tara from the Meadowlands Cup early on Friday. The Belmont Stakes winner will be pointed to the Jerome Handicap for 3-year-olds Sunday at Belmont Park. The scratch of Da' Tara freed Alan Garcia to ride Past the Point, who needed a rider when John Velazquez went down in a spill Friday afternoon at Keeneland.