03/01/2008 12:00AM

Big Cap promises day of plenty

Benoit & Associates
Awesome Gem, the morning-line favorite, will have David Flores riding.

ARCADIA, Calif. - California racing needed a day like this - sunny skies, a functional racing surface, full fields, and the most attractive race of the long and troubled winter meet at Santa Anita.

A screwball season can be made right Saturday when a good field of 14 older horses races 1 1/4 miles in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. For one day at least, the 71st Big Cap and an outstanding supporting card will provide reprieve from rain, surface problems, and short fields that have plagued the season.

The day will be complete if Grade 1 winner Student Council and jockey Richard Migliore can fashion another upset over the Big Cap favorite, Awesome Gem, and pacesetter Monterey Jazz. Those three, along with Tiago, Medici Code, and Heatseeker, are principals in the Grade 1 main event, race 9 on a four-stakes, 11-race card that starts at noon.

War Monger will run at Santa Anita for the first time in race 8, the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile on turf. War Monger could return in the fall for the Breeders' Cup Mile. Derby hopefuls El Gato Malo and Colonel John meet in race 7, the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the main track. And the pick six on races 6 through 11 includes a $1 million-guaranteed pool, with the most perplexing leg the 14-horse Big Cap.

The race will be run over a surface that went from bad to worse to good again, thanks to a five-day refurbishment Feb. 4 through 8. The composition of the track changed, and so did the bias. It influences Big Cap pacesetter Monterey Jazz, who trainer Craig Dollase acknowledges, "has one way of going: He puts himself in the race, and says, 'Come and catch me. ' "

The strategy worked Feb. 2 in the Grade 2, 1 1/8-mile Strub. Monterey Jazz rode the crest of a pro-speed bias, raced gate to wire, and won by 4 1/2 lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. That was then, this is now. The speed bias is gone. So is Monterey Jazz's rider David Flores, who chose Awesome Gem, also trained by Dollase.

According to Dollase, he let Flores choose which horse to ride. Flores left the decision to agent Brad Pegram. And when Awesome Gem's owner, West Point Thoroughbreds, entered El Gato Malo in the Sham, the choice was clear.

El Gato Malo "running the same day was not the determining factor, but it played into" the decision, Pegram said.

The mount on Monterey Jazz went to Russell Baze, who has more wins than any other North American jockey and who is riding in his first Big Cap. Baze must harness Monterey Jazz's speed over a surface that has become increasingly friendly to closers.

But if the surface renovation is reason to distrust Monterey Jazz on the lead, similar reasoning might apply to Student Council. After all, his upset last summer in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar was at the opposite extreme regarding track speed. Student Council won that 1 1/4-mile race on Polytrack in a dreadfully slow 2:07.29.

Migliore rode Student Council at Del Mar, and has been working him regularly on the new Santa Anita surface.

"This surface has changed, it's different, and he definitely handles it well," Migliore said.

But if a horse needed 2:07 and change to get a 1 1/4 miles on slow Polytrack, can he win on a synthetic surface that is much faster. The win at Del Mar, Migliore said, "speaks to his staying ability, his stamina. This track is not as dramatic."

In fact, after the renovation last month, Migliore said Santa Anita is "more of a fair surface than the speed-favoring stuff we were on" early in the meet. Student Council has won 7 of his last 15 races on the main track, and his fifth-place comeback in the Feb. 9 San Antonio was partly the result of messed-up training schedule.

The San Antonio originally was scheduled for Feb. 3, but racing was canceled. Trainer Vladimir Cerin could have shipped Student Council to Hollywood Park, or worked him on the training track. He did neither, and merely galloped him into the race.

Student Council was beaten 5 1/2 lengths in a race won by the slow-pace front-runner. Since then, Student Council has thrived.

"He's doing extremely well," Cerin said. "He's improved considerably since last summer.

"He's had a couple things not go his way, but right now, everything is going his way."

There are plenty of alternatives, including Awesome Gem. Trouble is, he never quite gets there. Since a nose victory last January in the Grade 2 San Fernando, he is 0 for 7 in graded stakes, including runner-up finishes behind Student Council and Tiago.

"He's knocking on the door," Dollase said, regarding Awesome Gem, third in the San Antonio. Awesome Gem finished four lengths in front of Student Council in that race, but Awesome Gem went into that race without missing training at Hollywood Park.

As for Tiago, he enters on a solid two-race pattern. He won the Grade 1 Goodwood last fall, ran fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and returned Jan. 12 in the San Fernando. He finished a closing third in that race, and was second in the Strub. Tiago will be racing over the new surface Saturday for the first time.

"I haven't seen a track that he doesn't like," trainer John Shirreffs said. "Obviously, we've stepped up [his training] a little bit after his last race. He's coming into this race really well, and he's had a couple starts now."

Grade 2-winning turf horses Champs Elysees and Medici Code have class credentials, and are trying the new main track for the first time. Medici Code, at 15-1, has looked sensational in works at Santa Anita.

Go Between won the Sunshine Millions Classic; Air Commander won the San Fernando. Zappa won the San Pasqual; Great Hunter was a Grade 1 winner as a 2-year-old. Others include Big Booster, Seminole Native, and Celtic Dreamin.