03/02/2006 12:00AM

Big Cap battle for divisional lead

Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, galloping Wednesday under Delphine Carles, makes his second 4-year-old start in Saturday's Grade 1 Big Cap.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The $1 million on Saturday may finally give the California older horse division the clear leader it has lacked in recent months. There are plenty of candidates capable of staking a claim to that role.

The Grade 1 Big Cap features one runner well known to even the most casual of racing fans - Giacomo, the winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby - and three others who won major stakes in their last start - High Limit, the winner of the Strub Stakes on Feb. 4; Spellbinder, who won his first stakes in the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 5; and the durable Lava Man, the ex-claimer who won the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic here on Jan. 28.

They are joined by the outsiders Magnum, Marenostrum, Texcess, Wilko, and With Distinction.

"It's not a great race going in, but maybe somebody will come out of there," said trainer Bobby Frankel, who starts High Limit and Marenostrum.

The Santa Anita Handicap is one of four stakes on an outstanding 11-race program that begins at noon Pacific. The undercard includes the $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes for 3-year-olds, a race led by top Kentucky Derby hopeful Brother Derek.

The Big Cap is the day's 10th race. High Limit, who finished last of 20 in the 2005 Kentucky Derby, will be a deserving favorite in the Big Cap, which is run at 1 1/4 miles.

Owned by Gary and Mary West, High Limit is unbeaten in two starts at this meeting - a nose win in the San Pasqual Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on Jan. 7, and a sharp win by 4 1/2 lengths in the Strub Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 4.

He led throughout the San Pasqual and raced just off the pace for the first six furlongs of the Strub. The latter race has given Frankel confidence that High Limit can provide him with his third win in the Big Cap.

"If there is speed, I want to get the same trip," Frankel said. "If there is no speed, he can go to the lead. It looked like the other day he could get the distance. He was very impressive."

With Distinction and Spellbinder may set the pace. With Distinction won the Grade 3 El Conejo Handicap at 5 1/2 furlongs on Jan. 2 and rebounded from a last-place finish in the Palos Verdes Handicap at six furlongs on Jan. 21 to finish a game second to Spellbinder in the San Antonio Handicap at 1 1/8 miles.

Spellbinder, once a workmate to 2005 Big Cap winner Rock Hard Ten, must conserve energy early to win the longest race of his career.

One trainer with a Big Cap entrant thinks that High Limit will be part of the pace.

"Bobby's has to show he is not a speed-only horse," said Doug O'Neill, who starts Lava Man.

The winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup at 1 1/4 miles last July, Lava Man ended a three-race losing streak in the Sunshine Millions, which was restricted to California-breds and Florida-breds.

Lava Man, 5, has tactical speed that could make him a threat, especially if the pace is too hot.

A quick pace would help Wilko, the winner of the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Owned by Paul Reddam and Susan Roy, Wilko is winless in eight subsequent starts, including a sixth in the 2005 Kentucky Derby and a troubled third in the San Antonio.

The losing streak has made Wilko more of an outsider than a colt considered a leading contender.

"We always are, it seems like, and that's okay," trainer Craig Dollase. "We got buttoned up last time. Hopefully, we'll have a little luck this time. Hopefully, he's coming up to his best run. He's not giving us any indication that he isn't."

Giacomo will have supporters

hoping that he can use his late kick to win for the first time since the Kentucky Derby. Sidelined for eight months after undergoing surgery to have bone chips removed from his ankle and knee last June, Giacomo was beaten five lengths by High Limit in the Strub Stakes.

Trainer John Shirreffs is taking his typically cautious approach to Giacomo's start in the Big Cap.

"I like it as the second race in his 4-year-old campaign," Shirreffs said. "Will he be near his peak performance after one race? I don't think so. Will he improve? I think he'll improve.

"The big plus is he came out of it good and has a good race under his belt. That was what we were looking for."

The field

Santa Anita Handicap
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1With DistinctionJ. Santiago11520-1
2MagnumJ. Court11215-1
3TexcessT. Baze11415-1
4SpellbinderM. Pedroza1156-1
5High LimitP. Valenzuela1205-2
6Lava ManC. Nakatani1204-1
7GiacomoM. Smith1183-1
8WilkoG. Gomez1158-1
9MarenostrumV. Espinoza11212-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly