12/27/2006 12:00AM

Four older horses hope for second wind

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The older horses El Roblar, Lucky J.H., Surf Cat, and Wilko have been largely forgotten in recent months. Each of them won important races earlier in their careers, but layoffs from injuries - in the case of El Roblar, Lucky J.H., and Surf Cat - and a bout with colic for Wilko have kept them out of the spotlight recently.

But during the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, they could reemerge as horses to follow in a handicap division led by the dominant Lava Man.

El Roblar and Wilko are expected to start soon, possibly in the $250,000 San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 4, while Lucky J.H. remains at owner John Harris's farm in central California and is farther from a start. Surf Cat could start by the end of the meeting in April.

Of the quartet, Wilko is by far the best known and has had the most to overcome. The winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 2004, he was promoted from third to second in the 2006 Dubai World Cup after runner-up Brass Hat tested in excess of permitted levels of medication.

Owned by Paul Reddam, Wilko lost three consecutive starts on the East Coast with trainer Mark Hennig after the Dubai World Cup.

In late summer, Wilko was sent back to California and trainer Craig Dollase. While being transported to a clinic for an "exploratory diagnosis," Wilko began suffering from colic, Reddam said.

"They found a weird thing with his small intestine," Reddam said. "It was in the wrong place. No one had heard of that before."

The surgery was a success, but Wilko did not resume training until the fall. He could run in an allowance race in January, Reddam said.

The 5-year-old's sketchy record has created many skeptics. Wilko is winless since the BC Juvenile, a span of 13 races.

"Hopefully, he's got his will to win," Reddam said. "With him, you don't know until he runs. Sometimes he shows up, sometimes he doesn't. A win would be gratifying. He gets no respect at all, and he's got $2 million" in earnings.

El Roblar, 4, has not started since finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Tokyo City Handicap at Santa Anita last April, emerging from the race with a bone chip in a hock.

Trainer Richard Mandella has spoken glowingly of El Roblar's condition during his comeback.

"In a couple of weeks, he'll be ready to start," trainer Richard Mandella said. "He's in good shape."

Last year, Mandella hoped that El Roblar would develop into a Hollywood Gold Cup or Pacific Classic candidate during the summer. The first race of the year here at that level is the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 3, a race that Mandella hopes he can make with El Roblar.

"I think there is still a good possibility of that," Mandella said.

Lucky J.H., 5, has not started since winning the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap at Hollywood Park in June. Lucky J.H. appeared to be improving with each start last summer.

Trainer Carla Gaines said earlier this week that Lucky J.H. will remain at the farm until early in 2007, recovering from an ankle injury. "We re-scanned him and the vets thought we should give him more time," she said. "I kind of have to wait until the powers that be say he's ready to start back training."

Surf Cat, a three-time stakes winner in 2006, is expected to make a return to training in February after being rested because of foot problems. Trained by Bruce Headley, Surf Cat was an impressive winner of the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park in May in his final start of 2006.

Baze to ride Squallacious in La Brea

Russell Baze, who has won more races than any other rider, will have the mount on Squallacious in Saturday's $250,000 La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, trainer Mike Puype said Wednesday.

Baze, based in northern California, has never ridden Squallacious, who has won 2 of 3 starts. The filly was previously ridden by Corey Nakatani, who has elected to ride four-time stakes winner Foxysox in the Grade 1 La Brea at seven furlongs.

While Nakatani's defection has Puype miffed, Puype said Squallacious is ready for her first start since finishing second in the Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks last June.

"I'm not worried" about the rider switch, Puype said. Nakatani "is a very talented rider and I'm not going to knock him."

Squallacious, owned by Rick Trontz, was given the summer off after the Hollywood Oaks.

Puype admits that returning in a seven-furlong Grade 1 race will be difficult for Squallacious.

"It's not a perfect race to bring her back," he said. "I had to push to get to this point. I've had to push the engine to get here. But when you see her in the paddock, her physical presence, she's good."

Squallacious will face a group led by Balance, the winner of two Grade 1 races here last winter, and Foxysox, who won the Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park earlier this month.

Other probable starters are Bettarun Fast, Diplomat Lady, Downthedustyroad, Getback Time, Les Ry Leigh, Tasha's Delight, and Vague.

Vague, the winner of the UAE 1000 Guineas in Dubai last February, is being offered in the Keeneland January sale, owner Reddam said.

Coco Belle scores after long layoff

Returning from a layoff of more than five months, Coco Belle stamped herself as a 3-year-old filly to watch in 2007 with a front-running victory in a maiden race on Tuesday.

Trained by John Sadler, Coco Belle ran 5 1/2 furlongs in a quick 1:03.04, finishing 2 3/4 lengths in front of Queen of the Catsle.

Last summer at Hollywood Park, Coco Belle was second in two maiden races before being sidelined. "She had sore shins after the second race," Sadler said.

Sadler said he has not made definitive plans for Coco Belle, but "we'll keep her short, for sure."