02/09/2009 1:00AM

Big Cap looks packed

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There will be no shortage of starters in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7.

As of Sunday, 13 starters were probable for the richest race of the meeting, with the maximum field of 14 well within reach. Three preps at Santa Anita last weekend helped solidify a probable field led by the Strub Stakes winner, Cowboy Cal, and the San Antonio Handicap winner, Magnum.

Cowboy Cal won his third stakes since October in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes at 1 1/8 miles, and must be considered the top contender for the Big Cap. Trained by Todd Pletcher for Robert and Janice McNair, Cowboy Cal has won two stakes at this meeting, the first of which was the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap against older horses on Jan. 10.

In the Strub, Cowboy Cal stalked the pace before taking the lead in the final furlong, winning by three-quarters of a length over Blue Exit, another Big Cap hopeful.

"I think he settled pretty well," Pletcher said of Cowboy Cal. "It was a quality effort from a quality horse."

Blue Exit had a rough trip in the stretch. He was ninth at the eighth pole and closed well.

"He got a little unlucky in the lane or he might have won it," trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said.

There were seven horses within two lengths of Cowboy Cal at the finish. Victory Pete, third, beaten 1 1/4 lengths, and Dixie Chatter, who was a neck behind Victory Pete, are Big Cap candidates.

Richard Mandella trains Dixie Chatter and may have another Big Cap runner in Matto Mondo, the winner of Saturday's Thunder Road Handicap at a mile on the main track. Matto Mondo was timed in 1:34.61, the fastest of 34 one-mile main-track races at this meeting.

"I wouldn't have thought of [the Big Cap] until he ran like that," Mandella said.

The Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf on March 7 is another possibility for Matto Mondo, Mandella said.

Monba, trained by Pletcher, finished third in the Thunder Road in his first start since a 20th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby last May. The Thunder Road was scheduled for turf, but switched to the main track because of rain.

"We were hoping the race would come off the turf," Pletcher said. "I thought his race was good."

At least two runners from the San Antonio are expected for the Big Cap - the winner, Magnum, and third-place finisher Tiago. Well Armed, who set the pace and was beaten a length, will be pointed for the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 28, a race in which he finished third last year.

Other Big Cap hopefuls include the French turf stakes winner Zambezi Sun, now trained by Bobby Frankel; Colonel John, the winner of the 2008 Santa Anita Derby and Travers Stakes; Court Vision, the winner of the Hollywood Derby in November; the undefeated Rail Trip, who has yet to start in a stakes; and Dansant, an invader from England.

Gio Ponti possible for Kilroe

Gio Ponti, fifth in the Strub Stakes, may run in the Kilroe Mile, trainer Christophe Clement said. Gio Ponti finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Cowboy Cal, closing from ninth.

"It's a bit of a puzzle," Clement said of the loss. "The Kilroe Mile is a chance. We could give him a break for Keeneland" in April.

The Kilroe Mile field will feature Global Hunter, the runner-up in the Thunder Road. Trainer A.C. Avila said on Sunday that Global Hunter is better suited to turf than the synthetic main track.

Desert Code ready for return

After a minor setback last fall, Desert Code, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint in October, will make his 2009 debut in Sunday's $100,000 Daytona Handicap.

The Grade 3 Daytona is over the same course as the BC Turf Sprint - about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course.

Trained by David Hofmans for Tarabilla Farms, Desert Code was considered for turf sprint stakes in Hong Kong and at Hollywood Park in the fall, but did not start because of an ankle problem.

Last month, a start in the Palos Verdes Handicap on turf was skipped in favor of the Daytona. Sunday, Desert Code worked six furlongs in 1:13 on the main track under jockey Aaron Gryder.

Hofmans would have preferred a turf workout, but none was conducted on a wet Sunday morning.

"We weren't going to get a grass work, so we went on the main track," Hofmans said.

Hofmans said that Gryder will ride Desert Code in the Daytona, replacing Richard Migliore, who is based in New York.

Five graded stakes over weekend

The Daytona is one of five graded stakes at Santa Anita from Saturday through Monday.

Leah's Secret, the winner of the Sunshine Millions Distaff on Jan. 24, and Visit, third in the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes in November, are the leading contenders in Saturday's $300,000 Santa Maria Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles.

Sunday's program is led by the $200,000 La Canada Stakes for 4-year-old fillies at 1 1/8 miles. Life Is Sweet, the winner of the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes on Jan. 18, will be a strong favorite.

Monday's $150,000 Buena Vista Handicap for fillies and mares at a mile on turf will mark the U.S. debut of French group stakes winner Modern Look. Now trained by Bobby Frankel, Modern Look has won half of her eight starts.

The $150,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs on the same program will include the stakes-winning filly Evita Argentina against the improving Gato Go Win and Congor Bay, the winner of the San Pedro Stakes last month.

Navigator out indefinitely

Navigator, scratched from Saturday's Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes, was diagnosed with a bone chip in an ankle on Sunday and is sidelined indefinitely, trainer Ron Ellis said.

Owned by Mace and Samantha Siegel, Navigator won the Blue Norther Stakes on turf here Dec. 28. Navigator will have the bone chip removed surgically, Ellis said.