07/05/2007 12:00AM

Childhood pals, Triple Bend rivals


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A score will be settled Saturday at Hollywood Park, when the two best horses start side by side in the seven-furlong Triple Bend Handicap.

The past performances do not show it, but El Roblar and Surf Cat have, in fact, faced each other. Yet they never met in an actual race and never with as much at stake as in the Grade 1, $250,000 Triple Bend.

El Roblar and Surf Cat, both 5, have long gone separate ways for different trainers. But they go way back. They were pals at age 2 at trainer Bruce Headley's backyard ranch near Santa Anita.

"They were there together, went everywhere together, and had all their first works together," Headley said. "They looked so good . . . they were my choices."

That's how it started: Two unraced colts with potential that Headley had purchased at auction. Headley liked them both, but by the time they began their careers at Santa Anita in early 2005, El Roblar was his favorite. The son of War Chant won first out in a six-furlong sprint, and looked like he wanted to run on. The sky was the limit.

Unfortunately, the relationship with owner Jess Jackson soured and El Roblar was yanked from Headley and sent to Richard Mandella after only one start. Headley was crushed. He predicted El Roblar would sweep the Strub series the next winter, win the Santa Anita Handicap for Mandella, and emerge as the best older horse in California.

"If he stayed with me, he would have," Headley said.

It sounds like a knock on Mandella.

"I don't care," Headley said. "We have different styles. If Mandella sent me his horses, I probably wouldn't do as good as he would have. It's hard for a horse to change styles."

When El Roblar arrived, Mandella was aware of the hype.

"He'd only broken his maiden," Mandella said. "Hearing the talk and opinions . . . what other people think isn't going to make me nervous."

It's an old trick - when a trainer loses a horse, talk him up. If the horse does well, it was because he was expected to. And if he falls short, "dumb training," Mandella said. "I've seen that move many times."

El Roblar has done well, though nothing spectacular, in two years and 11 starts for Mandella. In only his second start for Mandella he won a stakes, and his 5-for-12 career includes the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap last month.

Surf Cat, meanwhile, became a star. It took a while. He needed three starts to win a maiden race, and six starts to win a stakes. But he developed into a better horse than his former workmate. Surf Cat's 7-for-11 career includes four graded stakes and triple-digit Beyer Figures in his last eight starts. By comparison, El Roblar has won one graded stakes, and topped 100 Beyer three times.

Headley would love to win the Triple Bend with Surf Cat, the best horse sired by the unheralded stallion Sir Cat. Surf Cat is owned by Marsha Naify and Headley's wife, Aase. And Headley would love to knock off El Roblar, who is still owned by Jackson.

If he loses, Headley has a convenient alibi. Surf Cat, the 123-pound highweight, has not started in more than a year.

"El Roblar has the advantage because he's been racing," Headley said. "I've been off a long time."

After winning the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap last summer, Surf Cat emerged with a bruised foot and puffy ankles. X-rays were negative; all he needed was time off. The Triple Bend will be the first start for Surf Cat since May 13, 2006. Even while Surf Cat was out of commission, Headley admits he kept tabs on El Roblar.

During the Santa Anita winter meet, El Roblar often walked right past his old stable. Headley's daughter Karen, who trained El Roblar and Surf Cat as 2-year-olds at Fairplex Park, always says hello to El Roblar.

"He knows her," Headley said.

Seven others entered the Triple Bend, none better-looking than El Roblar or Surf Cat. Mandella describes El Roblar as "a big, good-looking horse with a lot of leg under him.

"He's got an elegant look," Mandella said.

Surf Cat, Headley said, "is a perfect example of elegance. He's a perfect-sized horse; he has an arch in his neck like a stallion. He stands tall and reaches long."

But the Triple Bend is not a beauty contest. And maybe this time, El Roblar will not let Surf Cat get away from him like he did one morning before either colt had started.

Gary Stevens was working El Roblar in company with Surf Cat, and Headley knew El Roblar was a runner. Surf Cat had missed a work, so Headley instructed Stevens to drop back on El Roblar and give Surf Cat a two-length head start.

Stevens, who figured El Roblar was much the best horse, instead gave Surf Cat six lengths. By the time they hit the wire Surf Cat had widened and was in front by 10.

"Stevens comes back, and he said you better check [El Roblar], something's wrong," Headley said. "He thought El Roblar was sick."

As it turns out, what happened is El Roblar hooked a future star, and surrendered the "workout race" by giving away a huge head start. The next time they worked in company, El Roblar and Surf Cat stayed head-and-head.

"They were always even," Headley said.

El Roblar has a score to settle with Surf Cat. Headley has a score to settle with El Roblar.

So is Surf Cat ready?

"I waited until I thought [Surf Cat] was in perfect racing condition," Headley said. "What I'm looking for is a hat trick - a Grade 1, a comeback, and to beat El Roblar."