04/17/2002 11:00PM

Cagney returns to his favorite surface


ARCADIA, Calif. - With his lone dirt start behind him, Cagney returns to turf in Sunday's $400,000 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap at Santa Anita.

For the last six months, Cagney has been an experimental horse of sorts for trainer Richard Mandella. A Brazilian-bred, Cagney was sent to Japan last November, but finished 12th in the $3.9 million Japan Cup. Following a close third in the San Marcos Stakes here in January, he tried the main track in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 2, finishing fifth of 14.

The return to turf could give Cagney the biggest win of his career. Owned by Stud TNT, he is proven on this turf course, having won the Grade 3 Carleton Burke Handicap over 1 1/2 miles on turf last October.

"At a mile and a half, he looked pretty good," Mandella said of the Carleton Burke. "I like his chances."

Cagney could end a nine-year drought for Mandella in the San Juan Capistrano, the nation's longest Grade 1 race.

Run over about 1 3/4 miles on turf, the San Juan Capistrano typically draws horses capable of starting in the nation's most important turf races. This year's group has something to prove. Continental Red, the topweight at 117 pounds, won his first stakes in his 39th start in the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Stakes on March 16.

Cagney is next on the list at 116 pounds. Other probables include Chelsea Barracks, Dispersed Reward, Keemoon, Ringaskiddy, Speedy Pick, and Staging Post.

Mandella won the San Juan Capistrano in 1993 with Kotashaan, and has had three starters since, none of whom have hit the board. Even the mighty Sandpit could only finish fourth as a heavy favorite in 1995.

Cagney could give Mandella a potential turf horse in upcoming major stakes.

"He's only 5, that's like a yearling in our barn," Mandella joked. "We're getting a handle on him."

Special Ring displays potential

Special Ring, the winner of a one-mile allowance race on turf at Santa Anita on Wednesday, has a big role to fill in trainer Julio Canani's stable.

Last week, Canani announced the retirement of Val Royal, the winner of the 2001 Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont Park.

While Special Ring may have only won an allowance race, he did so in a fashion that impressed Canani and left the trainer wondering if the 5-year-old gelding's mental antics are behind him.

"It is the first time he has relaxed," Canani said. "He's got ability, but he's a nutcase. After the first quarter-mile, I couldn't believe it. I thought what will he do? Jump the fence?"

Owned by Prestonwood Farm, Special Ring zipped a mile in 1:34.54, winning by 3 1/2 lengths over Skipping, a French import trained by Bobby Frankel.

Special Ring began his career in France, where he was placed in group stakes. In this country, he has won 3 of 9 starts, including an allowance race at Hollywood Park last November and an allowance race on Feb. 21, his most recent start prior to Wednesday's race.

"Even when he won at Hollywood, he did everything wrong and still won," Canani said, referring to the way Special Ring lugged out. "It's tough to replace the other horse, but at least the horse is improving a little bit."

Railbird next for September Secret

September Secret earned a trip to the $100,000 Railbird Stakes at Hollywood Park on May 18 following an impressive win in an allowance race/optional claimer at Santa Anita on Wednesday.

Racing for Lo Hi Stable and trainer Mike Machowsky, September Secret ran six furlongs in 1:09.38 for her second win in three starts. Ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr., September Secret was second on the backstretch and rallied along the inside to win by 3 1/2 lengths.

"I didn't want to be speed crazy on the inside," Machowsky said. "I said, 'Ride her like she's the best horse.'"

Holdthehelm headed to Texas

Holdthehelm, a troubled fifth in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 13, is bypassing the Kentucky Derby in favor of the $500,000 Lone Star Derby over 1 1/8 miles at Lone Star Park on May 11. Patrick Valenzuela will ride, according to trainer Paul Assinesi.

"We're regrouping and Texas is the next step," Assinesi said. "Pat thought he might have been second best in his last race."

Assinesi said the $200,000 Diamond A USA Stakes over 1 1/16 miles on turf on May 27 is a back-up plan but that "our first preference is the Lone Star Derby."

A winner of 2 of 11 starts, Holdthehelm was stakes-placed last October at Santa Anita.

* White Heart, unraced since finishing eighth in the Japan Cup last November, breezed a half-mile in 50.40 seconds on turf on Thursday. Trained by Neil Drysdale, White Heart is being prepared for the $400,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic over 1 1/8 miles on turf at Churchill Downs on May 4, a race he won last year.

* Hollywood Honey, the winner of a two-furlong race by 3 1/2 lengths on March 21, is being pointed for the $100,000 Three Chimneys Juvenile Stakes over five furlongs at Churchill Downs on May 4. A filly, Hollywood Honey will face males.