03/02/2009 1:00AM

Big field will benefit Tiago


ARCADIA, Calif. - The likelihood of a maximum field of 14 in Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap is a delight to trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith, the team behind top contender Tiago.

Third in the Breeders' Cup Classic in October, which had a field of 12, Tiago needs an honest pace to aid his closing style.

"When horses come from off the pace, they need a little help up front," Shirreffs said.

Tiago should get that with a large field. Horses such as Cowboy Cal and Matto Mondo are expected to set a strong pace in the 1 1/4-mile race. Tiago will be closer to the back of the field than the front - at least for the first five furlongs. The question is whether the pace will be fast enough to soften the front-runners.

Owned by breeders Jerry and Ann Moss, Tiago, 5, has won 5 of 18 starts and $2,358,270, the highest earnings among the probable starters. Tiago picked up $500,000 for running third in the BC Classic, closing from 11th in a field of 12 to finish 2 1/2 lengths behind Raven's Pass.

"As far as big fields, he doesn't really mind," said Smith, who has ridden Tiago in 15 races. "He'll go through, inside, outside. He doesn't care."

Despite the strong showing in the BC Classic, Tiago needs a win to boost his career. He had one victory in eight starts last year, winning the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap in April.

Weight assignments were announced over the weekend for the Big Cap, and Tiago was given 118 pounds, one pound less than he carried to a fourth-place finish in the 2008 Big Cap. Einstein, the five-time stakes winner who was third in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 31, is the 121-pound topweight.

Cowboy Cal, winner of the Strub Stakes here Feb. 7, will carry 120 pounds, one more than Court Vision, who was third in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap on Feb. 1, and Colonel John, winner of the 2008 Travers Stakes and Santa Anita Derby.

The other assignments among the probable starters are Champs Elysees, at 118 pounds; Dansant, Magnum, Matto Mondo, and Zambezi Sun at 116; Blue Exit at 115; Monba and Stream Cat at 114; and Heroi do Bafra at 111.

The 14 horses with the highest assignments will start, which means that the longshot Cause, at 110 pounds, may not gain a berth. Red Rocks, the winner of the 2006 Breeders' Cup Turf, is unlikely to start, according to trainer Mark Hennig.