02/28/2011 4:12PM

Baffert has four possible starters for Santa Anita Handicap

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Barbara D. Livingston
First Dude is one of four Bob Baffert-trained horses nominated to Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Twirling Candy will be a strong favorite to win Saturday’s $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap, but the number of opponents he will face was unclear Monday. The field could number 11, and Bob Baffert will have a big say in how many rivals Twirling Candy will face.

Baffert has four horses nominated to the race, with First Dude and Spurrier exepcted to start. Game on Dude and Tweebster could also run, but as of Monday Baffert had yet to decide.

“I could start from four to three to two to one,” he said.

Baffert was expected to make his decision after Game on Dude, First Dude, and Tweebster work Tuesday.

First Dude, 4, has yet to start for Baffert, having been previously trained by Dale Romans. Owned by breeder Donald Dizney, First Dude placed in six stakes last year, including a second in the Preakness Stakes and a third in the Belmont. Baffert began training First Dude in early February, after the colt finished a troubled fourth in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 29. Baffert has been highly complimentary of First Dude’s recent training.

Spurrier, who ran in claiming races ranging from $32,000 to $50,000 in 2009, was second to Big Cap hopeful Gladding in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes on Feb. 6. On Sunday, Spurrier worked six furlongs in 1:11.20 at Hollywood Park, the fastest of seven recorded works at the distance.

Twirling Candy will carry topweight of 122 pounds in an attempt to win his third consecutive stakes of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting. Owned by Jenny Craig, Twirling Candy won the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes in track-record time – 1:19.70 for seven furlongs – on Dec. 26, and won the Grade 2 Strub Stakes by 4 1/2 lengths on Feb. 5. The Big Cap will be his first career start over 1 1/4 miles.

Trainer John Sadler’s confidence in the 4-year-old colt soared after a seven-furlong workout in 1:25 at Santa Anita on Sunday.

“He went so well,” Sadler said.

The Big Cap will be Twirling Candy’s first start outside his age group since a fourth in the Grade 1 Goodwood Stakes against older horses at Hollywood Park last October. The Goodwood is Twirling Candy’s only loss in seven starts, which includes four stakes wins.

Twirling Candy’s weight assignment for the Big Cap is four to 10 pounds higher than the other probable starters. The actual spread in the weights at post time will be less, since some jockeys expected to ride the lower-weighted horses tack higher weights than their assignments.

The other weight assignments of the probable starters are Aggie Engineer, 118 pounds; Gladding, 117; First Dude and Tweebster, 116; Game on Dude, Quindici Man, and Spurrier, 115; Soul Candy, 114; and Pode Ir and Setsuko, 112.

On Sunday at Santa Anita, Gladding worked seven furlongs in 1:24.80, while Setsuko worked the same distance in 1:25.60. Sadler said Monday that leading rider Rafael Bejarano will ride Gladding.