03/06/2009 1:00AM

Big Cap and division up for grabs

Benoit & Associates
Cowboy Cal brings a two-race winning streak into Saturday's race.

ARCADIA, Calif. - In most seasons, a horse who had won two of the main prep races would be the undisputed favorite for Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. A 4-year-old, Cowboy Cal won the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap in his debut against older horses on Jan. 10 and followed with a victory against 4-year-olds in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes on Feb. 7.

In the Santa Anita Handicap, Cowboy Cal is only the 5-1 second favorite on the track's morning line, perhaps because he lacked style points in his recent victories. Cowboy Cal won the San Pasqual by a nose over 28-1 Informed. In the Strub Stakes, he won by three-quarters of a length over an unlucky Blue Exit, who was flying late through traffic.

Trained by Todd Pletcher for Robert and Janice McNair, Cowboy Cal has a tendency to wait on rivals when leading, seemingly looking for a companion. He'll find plenty of those if he pulls the same stunt in the Grade 1 Big Cap, which is run over 1 1/4 miles. The race has drawn 14 horses and is loaded with contenders.

The richest race of the Santa Anita meeting, the Big Cap is the 10th race on an 11-race program that includes two other Grade 1 races - the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks, featuring 2008 champion 2-year-old filly Stardom Bound, and the $300,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf, led by the outstanding 5-year-old mare Ventura racing against males.

The Big Cap, which has drawn runners from Florida and even England, can help sort out a leaderless national handicap division. With 2008 Horse of the Year Curlin retired, the role of top older horse is vacant - for now.

Whether Cowboy Cal can fill that role depends on how he takes to a longer distance. Last year, he lost two races going 1 1/4 miles, finishing ninth in the Kentucky Derby and a game second to Court Vision in the Hollywood Derby on turf in November. Court Vision also is part of the Big Cap field.

Cowboy Cal breaks from post 2 and will have a prominent position throughout. Matto Mondo, a two-time Group 1 winner in Chile in 2007 and the winner of the Thunder Road Handicap here last month, drew the rail and is expected to lead.

Pletcher would like to see Cowboy Cal near the front and cooperating with jockey John Velazquez.

"The biggest challenge is how well he can settle and relax," Pletcher said. "We feel he settles better when he has a horse to track."

Then, Pletcher needs Cowboy Cal to finish his job.

"Johnny said that when he makes the lead, he turns off," Pletcher said. "He thinks that the race is over. He'll do that and start fighting again when the other horses come up."

To win the Big Cap, Cowboy Cal must catch Matto Mondo and then hold off Colonel John, winner of the 2008 Santa Anita Derby and Travers Stakes; Magnum, winner of the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 8; Einstein, who won the Clark Handicap in November; the Bobby Frankel-trained pair of Zambezi Sun and Champs Elysees; and Court Vision and Blue Exit.

Also in the race are the Pletcher-trained Monba, who won the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes last year, and the longshots Cause, Dansant, Heroi Do Bafra, and Stream Cat.

The Big Cap will be the longest race of Matto Mondo's career. Jockey Rafael Bejarano will have to conserve some of the horse's energy for the stretch.

"I'd hate to see him zip out of there," trainer Richard Mandella said. "He's probably going to the lead anyway."

Magnum, who was second in the 2006 Big Cap, will need to show further improvement from his San Antonio win, trainer Darrell Vienna said.

"He'll have to run that race back and run harder," Vienna said.

The distance will not be a problem for Colonel John, but the absence of a start since Dec. 26 is a worry for trainer Eoin Harty. Colonel John was sidelined briefly with a pulled muscle in January.

"I've done as much as I can do," Harty said. "Going into the premier race of the meeting for older horses is a concern. Being a trainer is nothing but riddling yourself with second-guessing anyway."

Dansant is making his American debut, having won five stakes on England's synthetic-track circuit in the last 18 months. He has yet to win a graded stakes.

"If the others are on their A game, we have to be on our A-plus game," trainer Gerard Butler said.

The absence of a standout older horse in California has given the race a more national feel, with the shippers Court Vision and Einstein.

Court Vision is trained by Bill Mott, who finished second in the 2008 Big Cap with Go Between. The Big Cap will be Court Vision's first start on a synthetic track since a win in a maiden race at Keeneland in October 2007.

"We think it's justified to send him out," Mott said. "He hasn't run on that track, but he did show that he's capable of running" on a synthetic track.

Einstein is the 121-pound topweight and is seeking his sixth stakes win. A 7-year-old trained by Helen Pitts, Einstein had his best season last year, winning 4 of 9 starts and $1,114,938.

In the Clark, Einstein was just behind the early leaders until early stretch, his optimum style.

"We want to be within striking distance and be ready to pounce," Pitts said. "He's got a lot of heart."

The winner of Saturday's race will need plenty of that to win a wide-open race.