03/02/2006 12:00AM

Giacomo has best shot to upset High Limit

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Reigning Kentucky Derby champ Giacomo has a recent race under his belt - and will stretch out to his favorite distance in Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Looking for an alternative to likely favorite High Limit in Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap? You're not alone. Although 2 for 2 this year, he has yet to prove himself against top-class competition at the Santa Anita Handicap's distance of 1 1/4 miles.

So on whom should one settle? With Distinction? No, he seems like a sprinter. Texcess? No, he hasn't won in nine starts since winning the Delta Jackpot in late 2004. Wilko? No, he has similarly been absent from the winner's circle, losing eight straight since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 2004.

The best alternative appears to be Giacomo, the much-criticized winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby. He's not especially quick, but he did win the world's most important horse race.

He appears to be on the upswing after a useful, if unspectacular, comeback in the Strub. Racing against High Limit, he rallied decently to grab third in what was his first race back since a seventh-place finish in last year's Belmont Stakes.

He ought to be stronger with that race behind him, and more apt to fire one of his better races. Plus, he gets to stretch back out to his best distance of 1 1/4 miles.

Add that up, and he seems to have a legitimate chance at likely a square price. He is third choice at 7-2 on the track morning line.

As for High Limit, he enters the Santa Anita Handicap at the top of his game - having won the Strub and San Pasqual this year - but I can't forgive his past failures in races beyond 1 1/8 miles, not at a short price, anyway. Last of 20 in last year's Kentucky Derby, he also faded to fifth in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, finishing two lengths behind Giacomo, who was third.

He and Lava Man, the second choice on the line at 3-1 odds, have also shown a tendency to stop on occasion. If they do so again, Giacomo would get a Derby-like setup.

* The Santa Anita Handicap is just one of a number of attractive, bettable stakes on the Saturday card. With the exception of the Santa Catalina, which features a tough-to-stop Brother Derek, the supporting stakes on the Big Cap card seem highly competitive.

I like Juddmonte Farm-owned horses to win the two grass stakes - Set Alight in the 6 1/2-furlong Baldwin and Cacique in the Frank Kilroe Mile. They are classy, accomplished turf horses.

Set Alight, 13th of 14 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in his last start, should relish the return to grass racing in the Baldwin. He gets Lasix for the first time and should return to the form he displayed in winning a Group 3 last October in France.

Cacique also adds Lasix for the Frank Kilroe. One of the better 3-year-olds of 2004 in Europe, he disappointed last year at age 4, winning one race in four starts.

He benefits from several of his principal opponents getting stuck with outside posts. They could get forced wide or shuffled back with a short run to the first turn.

As of mid-afternoon Thursday, showers were in the forecast Friday for the Santa Anita area, which might result in some give to the turf course on Saturday. A damp course would figure to aid Cacique and Set Alight, who have experience on such footing overseas. Partly cloudy skies are forecast for Saturday.

* With a host of major stakes races at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Saturday, the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway might go unnoticed by many horseplayers. That's too bad because this is one of the better renewals of that race, and it also will be the first Battaglia run over Polytrack.

The Battaglia, a prep for the March 25 Lane's End Stakes, may also give horseplayers a measuring stick for how 3-year-olds stack up from different regions. Three horses - With a City, Go Bucky Go, and New Awakening - come off recent races in south Florida. Another, Kilimanjaro, was fourth recently in a tough Santa Anita allowance. And yet another, Trailing Twelve, was a half-length winner of an allowance at Aqueduct in his last start.

Throw in a number of talented locals, plus Cradle winner Laity, who has been training in Florida this winter, and you have a compelling race.

I'll take a price horse with Polytrack experience - Malameeze. Second in the WEBN Stakes when uncharacteristically pressing the pace, he might revert a stalking style in the Battaglia. In a field inundated with speed, that style should lead to a good trip.