10/31/2005 1:00AM

Cal Cup puzzler: Who'll run where?


ARCADIA, Calif. - The number of questions surrounding California Cup XVI on Sunday at Santa Anita nearly matches the size of the purses.

A sum of $1.3 million is up for grabs when the Oak Tree Racing Association conducts its annual extravaganza for California-breds, and the complexion of the races will be in flux right up until entry time.

The question for horsemen is, which of the eight stakes to enter? Do you run on turf, or dirt? Run long, or run short? For some, it is a choice between the lesser of evils.

With earnings of more than $1.1 million, Valentine Dancer will be the richest runner on the card. Problem is, the 5-year-old mare is a horse without an obvious race. A turf miler, Valentine Dancer can run on dirt in the $175,000 Matron, or turf in the $150,000 Distaff at 6 1/2 furlongs, or in the $100,000 Distance Handicap at 1 1/4 miles.

A bullet 46.40-second workout Saturday sharpened Valentine Dancer's speed and suggests trainer Craig Lewis is leaning to the Distaff. He has until entries close Thursday to decide. Meanwhile, Valentine Dancer's full brother Carano will run in the richest race - the $250,000 Cal Cup Classic at 1 1/8 miles.

There is also indecision regarding McCannn's Mojave, a graded-stakes-winning sprinter who has never raced beyond a mile. McCann's Mojave will run in either the $150,000 Sprint at six furlongs, or the Classic. "I'm not sure which race we're going in," trainer Paddy Gallagher said.

Welcome to the club.

Rapidly improving Cheroot has been racing on grass, and will be among the sharpest horses on the card. So does he run in the $150,000 Mile on turf, or the richer Classic?

"Do you run on a surface you know he likes, for smaller purse against a more contentious field?" said trainer Darrell Vienna, "or for a bigger purse? It's a close call, and I'm not convinced it was a change in surface [that led to his improvement]."

The Classic field is expected to be headed by graded stakes winner Desert Boom. Others expected are Carano, Texcess, Mr. Joe C, El Don, Thor's Echo, and Deputy Doc Renzi.

In the Mile, Bilo will run long and try grass for the first time. The Mile is an odd race for a dirt sprinter, but perhaps fitting in this uncertain Cal Cup. Bilo will face He's the Rage, Super Strut, and Sea Harbor.

Grade 1-winning sprinter Unfurl the Flag will try to rebound in the Sprint. Unfurl the Flag had a stifle problem when finishing seventh in the Vosburgh at Belmont, but trainer David Bernstein said Unfurl the Flag has recovered, and he expects an improved effort Saturday. The question is whether his Sunday workout, which nearly was aborted, was enough.

Corey Black was working Unfurl the Flag five furlongs after the 8 a.m. break. As Unfurl the Flag passed the half-mile pole, another horse broke down and was pulled up in the stretch. Warning horns and flashing lights alerted exercise riders to the trouble. Black took Unfurl the Flag to the middle of the track, slowed him down slightly, and he worked in 1:00.

"He normally works in 59-and-change," Bernstein said, adding that 1:00 "was fast enough."

Unfurl the Flag will be the most accomplished starter in the Cal Cup Sprint, which also is expected to attract Jet West, Proud Tower Too, Jack's Wild, and Thor's Echo.

The Matron is expected to include Grade 1 winner Dream of Summer, Grade 2 winner House of Fortune, and Proposed.

In the Distaff, Valentine Dancer would face Tialinga and stakes winner Gn. Group Meeting.

Graded stakes winner Moscow Burning returns from six-month layoff in the Distance Handicap, against Del Mar Ticket and Candy Factory.

The $125,000 Juvenile, at 1 1/16 miles, is led by Irish Bar, Direct Connect, Catouttathebag, and Brite Maneuvers.

The $125,000 Juvenile Fillies will include Fun Logic and Malley Girl.

In addition to eight stakes, the 11-race California Cup card has two starter allowance races and a maiden race. A $1 million guaranteed pick six pool will be offered. First post Sunday, closing day of the Oak Tree meet, is early at 11:15 a.m.

Gotaghostofachance Chuchill-bound

California-based Gotaghostofachance, winner of the Grade 3 Sport Page Handicap at seven furlongs on the Breeders' Cup undercard Saturday at Belmont Park, will stretch out two turns for his next start.

Trainer Roger Stein said Gotaghostofachance, 4, would return to Santa Anita on Monday, and aim for the Grade 2, 1 1/8-mile Clark Handicap on Nov. 25 at Churchill Downs.

Stratham wins U.S. debut

European import Stratham made a splashy U.S. debut in a small field in Sunday's $65,121 Pinjara Stakes, winning the mile turf race for 2-year-olds by three-quarters of a length to become a contender for the Grade 3 Generous Stakes on Nov. 25 at Hollywood Park.

Purchased by Jerry Jamgotchian before his July 23 maiden win in England, Stratham subsequently shipped to the U.S. and made his first start Sunday for trainer Tim Yakteen. Victor Espinoza rode Stratham ($11.40), who trailed in the four-horse field till the top of the stretch, split rivals at the furlong pole, and pulled clear in 1:35.38. Bay Meadows shipper Class of Fifty held second; odds-on Sensational Score finished a dull third.

Stratham, a son of Mozart, won for the second time in eight starts.

Las Palmas 3 each try something new

The Grade 2 Las Palmas Handicap - for fillies and mares at a mile on turf on Saturday - will be uncharted territory for Star Parade, Elusive Diva, and Dream's.

Star Parade is a Grade 1 winner on dirt but grass is a different story. So, how will she handle it?

"I tried her once on grass and it was a bad trip, so I really don't know," trainer Darrell Vienna said.

Runner-up in the Grade 2 Lady's Secret Handicap, Star Parade worked five furlongs on turf Sunday in 1:01.60.

Elusive Diva has won three turf sprints at Santa Anita; the Las Palmas will be her first turf start around two turns. She won the Grade 3 Sen. Ken Maddy in her last start.

Dream's, meanwhile, is trying to win her fifth straight start, while facing graded-stakes foes for the first time in the U.S. She won a minor stakes in her last start.

The likely Las Palmas field is Elusive Diva, Star Parade, Dream's, Bond Deal, Bright Abundance, Halo Ola, and Pickle.