01/31/2010 12:00AM

Czechers may be late-bloomer

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Barbara D. Livingston
Evita Argentina, sure to be well bet, is in good form but may not get sufficient pace to set up her closing kick in the Grade 1 Santa Monica on Sunday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Early this month, the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap at Santa Anita was shaping up as the best early-season stakes of the winter meet.

January, however, was wet. Rain disrupted training, horsemen altered workout schedules, and Sunday's seven-furlong Santa Monica for fillies and mares went from a predictably strong $250,000 stakes featuring three top-class runners, to a wide-open race begging for chaos.

Tuscan Evening, Free Flying Soul, and Evita Argentina are the headline names in the field of 12, but their classy reputations will be subject to revision afterward. Tuscan Evening is expected to scratch, Free Flying Soul might not be at her best, and deep closer Evita Argentina is unlikely to get another favorable pace scenario.

Assuming the favorites are compromised by circumstance, the Santa Monica could be won by a 5-year-old mare whose retirement from racing is also subject to change pending her Santa Monica performance.

Czechers is booked this spring to the stallion Candy Ride, but those plans were made before she turned in the best race of her career Jan. 3. Racing in a turf sprint, Czechers settled off the pace for the first time, and came running late. Her runner-up finish at 47-1 was not as much of a surprise as the way she did it.

"It was never a matter of her ability," trainer Mark Glatt said, "but throughout her career she's never been willing to drop the bit and finish."

Czechers has won 5 of 17 for owners Allen and Susan Branch, but she was her own worst enemy due to her aggressive style. She frequently went fast early, and sputtered late. Glatt made two changes he hoped would allow Czechers to maximize her potential - run her in a downhill turf sprint and put jockey Chantal Sutherland aboard.

"We were just taking a shot," Glatt said. "With a horse that pulls, pulls, pulls, the downhill course is a good race. And Chantal did a fantastic job."

Glatt noted that he believes there is a connection between Czechers and Sutherland, "and I've seen it in the mornings, too."

Sutherland was riding Czechers for the first time in the Monrovia Handicap, and when they were outfooted for the lead, Czechers allowed Sutherland to finesse her back off the pace. Instead of zooming forward, Czechers settled midpack, rallied late, and missed by a length to Tuscan Evening.

Was it a one-shot fluke for Czechers?

"It might have been just a lucky deal the other day," Glatt admits. "But [Sutherland] talks her out of being so gung-ho early."

Sunday in the Santa Monica, the key is to reproduce good turf form on the main track. And the last two workouts by Czechers were super. Sutherland was up both times.

The Santa Monica field will not include the filly that just beat Czechers. Tuscan Evening will not run, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. He said Tuscan Evening will wait for the Grade 2 Buena Vista Handicap at a mile on turf Feb. 15. "After looking at everything, we decided to stick to our original plan," Hollendorfer said.

Free Flying Soul, who has won 3 of her last 4 and was third in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, will set the Santa Monica pace. But though her recent races are sharp, rain and wet weather upset the mare's optimum schedule for trainer Bruce Headley. Free Flying Soul might not be at her best. Mike Smith rides.

With the expected scratch of one key starter and potential vulnerability of another, seven-furlong specialist Evita Argentina will be heavily backed. She benefited, however, from a severe early pace set by Kays N Jays and Amazing Grace when she rallied from last to first and won the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes on Dec. 26.

Neither of those front-runners entered the Santa Monica, which softens the pace and could negate Evita Argentina's late run. John Sadler trains the 4-year-old Evita Argentina, who has won 6 of 13 and could start favored under Joel Rosario.

The field for the Santa Monica also includes Gabby's Golden Gal, beaten favorite in the Grade 1 La Brea while possibly struggling with the surface. She is trained by Bob Baffert, who also entered the 2-for-2 allowance filly Gilded Gem.

Completing the field are Diamondrella, Cherryblossommiss, Captain's Lover, Made for Magic, Proviso, and Sweet August Moon.