02/26/2008 12:00AM

Bias tilts toward Big Cap's closers


ARCADIA, Calif. - The surface on which the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap will be run Saturday will be almost as important as ability of the horses.

And the trainers of several Big Cap starters are hopeful that the latest variation of the synthetic main track at Santa Anita will produce equitable results in the 1 1/4-mile Big Cap, rather than another front-runner's paradise.

For much of the winter meet, late-runners such as Great Hunter have been fighting an uphill battle against the grain of a speed-friendly surface.

"You've had a lot of horses go in single-file order," trainer Doug O'Neill said.

That is one reason O'Neill is cautiously optimistic that Great Hunter will improve on Saturday, because in recent days, the speed bias has evaporated. Just in time for the richest race of winter.

"We're hoping to have a track that is more conducive to his style," said O'Neill. Referring to conditions early in the meet, he added, "Not that it was unsafe, but it definitely had a lot more kickback and it was harder for horses to make up ground."

Great Hunter finished 11th in the Malibu at seven furlongs, sixth in the San Fernando at 1 1/16 miles, and fourth in the Strub at 1 1/8 miles.

"His strength is to make a big run, and [early in the meet] it was hard to do that," O'Neill said. "His last two races were good runs for a track that really wasn't super-kind to him."

But the Santa Anita main track is not the same speed-friendly surface that propelled front-runner Monterey Jazz to a brilliant victory in the Strub Stakes on Feb. 2. The track recently has slowed, and favored closers most of last week. If Monterey Jazz wins the Big Cap, he will do it without any help from the surface.

"It won't affect his running style - he takes it to them right off the bat," said Craig Dollase, trainer of Monterey Jazz. But Dollase hedged when asked if the changed surface affects Monterey Jazz's chance to carry his speed 1 1/4 miles. "I guess we'll find out Saturday," Dollase said.

Dollase also starts Awesome Gem, whose off-the-pace style complements Monterey Jazz's speed. David Flores, regular rider for both, sticks with Awesome Gem. Russell Baze, who rode Monterey Jazz in his maiden win, rides the Big Cap pacesetter.

Rain, cancellations, and surface renovations have played havoc with the winter schedule, and could be reason to give Zappa a chance to redeem himself after a seventh-place drubbing Feb. 9 in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap. Trainer John Sadler offered three possible excuses for Zappa, who in his prior start won the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap.

"One, he was coming off a lifetime best," Sadler said. "Two, it was the first day on that track after they reopened it, and maybe it was different."

The third possible excuse regards Zappa's final work for the San Antonio.

The Feb. 9 race card was the first since Feb.o2, a weeklong break necessitated by a surface repair project engineered by Pro-Ride. Five days before the San Antonio, Zappa sizzled six furlongs at Hollywood Park in a bullet 1:10.80.

"I'll say it - I worked him too fast," Sadler said.

Zappa may have emptied out in the workout, and was flat in the race. But he has trained easily since, and Zappa has scored too many upsets (three recent wins at 6-1 or higher) to dismiss off one bad race.

"If he runs his good race, he has a shot," Sadler said.

Meanwhile, trainer Darrell Vienna has been waiting months to find a suitable synthetic surface track on which to run European import Medici Code. Based on recent works by Medici Code at Santa Anita, including a five-furlong bullet move in 1:00 Tuesday under jockey Martin Pedroza, he has found it.

"I think he likes this ground; he's acted very well on it," Vienna said.

Consider it a total endorsement. Vienna rarely hyperbolizes, but after the workout, he admitted, "We're pretty excited."

Medici Code finished sixth in his United States debut last winter in the Santa Anita Derby on dirt, then returned to form in summer by winning back-to-back Grade 2's at Del Mar - the La Jolla Handicap and Del Mar Derby, both on turf. Even last summer, Vienna was eager to race Medici Code on synthetic.

"When I trained him [on Polytrack] at Del Mar, he was sensational on it," Vienna said.

But the 3-year-old turf series beckoned, and rather than face older, Vienna kept Medici Code with his own age group. In his last two starts, also on grass, Medici Code finished second in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, and third in the Grade 2 San Gabriel.

"The distance is fine for him; I think he wants every bit of a mile and a quarter," Vienna said. "And we have a track you can close ground on."

Great Hunter, Zappa, and Medici Code are outsiders in an expected full field of 14 Big Cap runners. But then, even the favorite this year - whichever horse that is - will be a generous price.

Santa Anita linemaker Jeff Tufts expected to open up the favorite at relatively high odds when entries were drawn Wednesday.

"With 14 horses, and as wide open as it is, probably the absolute lowest would be 7-2, and maybe 4-1," Tufts said Tuesday.

Tufts was likely to choose one of three horses as the morning-line favorite - Monterey Jazz, Tiago, or Awesome Gem.

The following are expected to enter the Big Cap: Monterey Jazz, Baze, 119; Tiago, Mike Smith, 119; Go Between, Garrett Gomez, 118; Awesome Gem, Flores, 117; Champs Elysees, Ramon Dominguez, 117; Student Council, Richard Migliore, 117; Air Commander, Aaron Gryder, 116; Heatseeker, Rafael Bejarano, 116; Big Booster, Michael Baze, 115; Celtic Dreamin, Alex Solis, 115; Great Hunter, Victor Espinoza, 115; Medici Code, Pedroza, 115; Zappa, Joel Rosario, 114; Monzante, Tyler Baze, 113; and Seminole Native, no rider, 113.