09/08/2005 12:00AM

Atto candidate A to the Z has come a long way


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Any alphabetical listing of candidates for this year's Atto Mile has to start with A to the Z.

But Paula Capestro, who trains A to the Z, is less concerned with the start than the end of the Grade 1, $1 million Atto Mile, which will be run at Woodbine on Sept. 18.

"He's been sort of a rags-to-riches story," said Capestro, who checked in with A to the Z from California last Thursday and is visiting Woodbine for the first time.

"A friend of mine mentioned this race, and said I should consider it. It could be right up his alley."

A to the Z, a California-bred 5-year-old gelding, was a long way from the Atto Mile when he debuted at the Bay Meadows Fair in the summer of 2002, finishing fifth for a claiming price of $32,000.

Two starts later, A to the Z won a maiden race for $12,500.

It was not until 2004, when A to the Z began a routine of two-turn races, that he displayed steady improvement, culminating with a win in the 1 1/8-mile Sunland Park Handicap.

That spring, A to the Z tried turf for the first time and ran third in the 1 1/8-mile Dallas Turf Cup at Lone Star, and his future course was decided.

A to the Z went from Texas to New York and ran sixth in the Grade 2 Bowling Green for Burl McBride, his third career trainer.

Darrell Ray, owner of A to the Z, had horses with Capestro at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, where she maintains her East Coast division. With some lucrative turf opportunities coming up, A to the Z was sent to Capestro's California base and debuted at Del Mar with a bang-up second-place finish in a third-level allowance race over a mile on turf.

"After that race, my husband and I bought him," said Capestro. "Our goals were to run him in the California Cup and the Sunshine Millions."

A to the Z delivered the goods in the California Cup Mile, winning by 2 1/4 lengths in a brisk 1:33.44.

With the Sunshine Millions races, for horses bred in California and Florida, scheduled for Jan. 29, Capestro looked for an interim spot to run A to the Z.

Her choice was the Grade 1 Citation, a 1 1/16-mile turf race at Hollywood on Nov. 2.

A to the Z, sent off at 41-1, closed strongly to finish second, a half-length behind Leroidesanimeaux, who was recording his fifth straight win that day and has since extended his win streak to seven.

Based on that career effort, A to the Z was the 2-1 favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Sunshine Millions Turf, but he finished second, beaten a half-length, this time by Star Over the Bay, who has since died.

A to the Z has started three times since then, at three different tracks.

On March 19, A to the Z finished second at the Fair Grounds in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Jr. Handicap, and was later awarded the top prize because of a positive test on the first-place finisher.

On May 7, at Churchill Downs, A to the Z had a poor start and a wide trip and finished last of 10 in the Grade 1 Woodward Reserve Turf Classic, beaten 5 1/2 lengths.

Then, in what was to be his Atto Mile prep, A to the Z went off as the even-money favorite in the $98,000 Joseph T. Grace Handicap over 1 1/16 miles on the turf at Santa Rosa.

"It looked like an easy race, and it was a brand-new turf course," said Capestro. "I knew it was fabulous."

A to the Z handled the Santa Rosa course just fine, but there was a major hitch. The gelding stumbled coming out of the gate, unseating his rider.

Capestro, however, remains light-heartedly optimistic that the prep served its purpose.

"He still won the race, and finished the mile and a sixteenth in record time, with no weight on his back," said Capestro. "We just didn't get paid."

"The horse likes to run fresh. I really don't do too much with him. He's light enough that he can get away with it."

Knights Templar: Two major changes

Knights Templar will be seeking her second straight stakes victory here in Sunday's Grade 3 Natalma, a one-mile turf race for 2-year-old fillies.

The Natalma attracted a field of 11, including invaders Shelterfromastorm and Leesburg Express.

Knights Templar, winner of the six-furlong Ontario Debutante in her last start here Aug. 20, will be trying a new distance and surface in the Natalma.

Danny Vella, who trains Knights Templar for Clover IV Stable and Krista Seltzer, is optimistic that the filly will pass muster on both counts.

"I think the distance is going to suit her to a T," said Vella. "Actually, I'm surprised she won going so short. To me, she acts like she wants to go a mile and a sixteenth."

Knights Templar, who won her first career start at 4 1/2 furlongs, was impressive in her lone turf workout, going five furlongs in 1:00.20 on the training course on July 22.

"I worked her with an older horse, and she gave him all he wanted," said Vella.

Last chance

Jennifer Morrison, a regular Daily Racing Form contributor and Woodbine's oddsmaker, will host her final 2005 session of "Early Morning Workouts" here Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m. in the trackside tent. Admission is free.

Morrison's guests at the seminar will be Sandy Hawley and Todd Kabel.

Saturday also will mark Jim Bannon's final handicapping seminar of the season. The free one-hour session begins at 11 a.m. in the grandstand.