01/05/2006 1:00AM

Big boys will be back soon

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Someone once said that you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have, which pretty much describes the challenge faced by the Santa Anita racing department as it presents the tradition-rich San Pasqual Handicap on Saturday.

It takes some hard rubbing to bring out much marquee luster from the field drawn for the 1 1/16-mile event, although High Limit was once on some 2005 Kentucky Derby short lists, Spellbinder comes out of a good Native Diver effort, and Buckland Manor, now 6, is always game for a try.

Still, the horse home first on Saturday is certain to have a hard time living up to a San Pasqual history that includes such winners as Native Diver, Ack Ack, Candy Spots, Precisionist, Criminal Type, Alphabet Soup, Silver Charm, and Congaree.

If Buckland Manor jumps up to win the San Pasqual, it would be no surprise. He has been threatening to break through with a major stakes win for so long that he has become a four-legged version of the little boy who cried wolf.

At one time or another, Buckland Manor has lost the Oak Tree Mile by a nose, the Kilroe Mile by a length, the Arcadia Handicap by a length, and another Oak Tree Mile by a length and a half. After that last race, Buckland Manor was on target for the Citation Handicap in November, as advertised, but the Hollywood Park turf course was a no-show. Then, on the second day of the current Santa Anita meet, Buckland Manor ended up an also-eligible for a fat allowance purse on the grass, but he did not get in.

"The Oak Tree Mile was a good race for him, coming off a layoff," said co-owner Trudy McCaffery. "So he's been ready to run for quite a while now, after the Hollywood fiasco with the grass, and then missing the race here. But the dirt shouldn't matter - he's won on both."

Buckland Manor and the other San Pasqual runners need to seize this particular day, because the competition is going to get tougher from here. Two of the toughest turned in recent works at Hollywood Park as if they are ready to pick up where they left off at the peak of their popularity, and both of them are headed for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 4.

Borrego was an impressive winner of the Pacific Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup, but then he phoned in a dull race when all the chips were down in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"We scoped the horse after the race and found some mucus, so we treated him with antibiotics," said trainer Beau Greely on Thursday. "Whether he bounced off his Gold Cup, or he was starting to come down with something, I'm not sure which.

"The nice thing is, he's still in training and doing great. Last year was a fun year. He made a real breakthrough. There might have been more thought about retiring him had he won the Breeders' Cup, but he's a young 5, and I think with age he can only improve.

"He breezed five-eighths this morning," Greely added. "I got him in a minute flat and he went wonderful. Everything's on go for the San . . . something - the San Antonio, at a mile and one-eighth, which will be his prep for the Santa Anita Handicap."

The nine-furlong San Antonio Handicap will be run on Feb. 5.

Lava Man threw in two clunkers at the end of last year, in the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Japan Cup Dirt, to take a little of the fizz off his earlier back-to-back victories in the Californian and the Hollywood Gold Cup. Borrego finished behind him in both.

Lava Man's trainer, Doug O'Neill, has drawn a red ring around Jan. 28 at Santa Anita, fully intending on running Lava Man in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic. First, though, they had to heal the frog of his left front foot, which sloughed its tough, protective layer of skin and was rubbed raw on the sandy surfaces in Japan.

"The frog is still a little soft and weak," O'Neill said, "but it has regained its normal shape and is looking pretty amazing, compared to what it was."

Lava Man's foot was so badly burned in Japan that he left the battlefield at Tokyo Racecourse leaving bloody footprints. Back home, O'Neill's crew went to work.

"My shoer, Jim Jimenez, made up a plate that just covers the frog and screws on and off so he only has to wear it on the track," O'Neill said. "That way you can get to the foot easily to work on it.

"He worked last Saturday and now he'll work every Saturday up to the race," O'Neill added. "He regained any weight he might have lost going to Japan, and his coat is looking like it did last summer, that real wetsuit look. But if he wins the Sunshine Millions, you can bet I'll be giving his blacksmith a lot of credit."