10/01/2009 11:00PM

Grazen has made big strides

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Benoit & Associates
Bold Chieftain, who won the Cal Cup Classic two years ago and was second last year, is back for another try.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The first time that Garrett Gomez rode Grazen he was nearly unseated in the starting gate by an eager colt.

"He almost left me in the gate, he left so hard," Gomez said. "I had trouble slowing him down."

Grazen won that race, the NTRA Stakes for California-bred maidens last April, by a convincing 2 1/2 lengths. Since then, Grazen's career has bloomed with every start, including stakes wins at Hollywood Park and Del Mar in recent months.

When Grazen starts in Saturday's $200,000 California Cup Classic at Santa Anita, he will be heavily favored to beat five rivals. Gomez is convinced the colt is capable of winning this race - and much bigger things in the future.

"He's a completely different horse," Gomez said. "He's moved a long way forward."

The Classic is the richest race on a 10-race program that includes eight stakes, all for California-breds, ranging in value from $75,000 to $200,000.

The program begins at noon Pacific, and includes a $500,000 guaranteed pick four on the final four races. The program drew only 76 horses, a disappointing figure for racetrack officials and the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, but the four stakes that make up the pick four races - the Distaff, Sprint, Mile, and Juvenile - each has nine or more entrants.

Grazen is seeking his first win at 1 1/8 miles in the Classic in his second attempt at the distance. He was second in the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes to Misremembered at Hollywood Park in July, Grazen's only loss this year. He won the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap over 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park in June.

Gomez, for one, is confidence that Grazen has improved enough to win the Classic. He was aboard for the colt's last start, a hard-fought win by three-quarters of a length over the graded stakes winner Chocolate Candy in the El Cajon Stakes at Del Mar on Sept. 5.

"The way he lengthened his stride in the stretch, he did it like a good horse should," Gomez said. "When Chocolate Candy came up alongside of him, I thought, 'Here we go.' By the time we got to the sixteenth pole, he lengthened [his stride] and moved away from there."

Owned by breeder Nick Alexander and trained by Mike Mitchell, Grazen could make more than one start at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting. Alexander and Mitchell have mentioned the possibility of Grazen starting in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile on Nov. 7 if he wins on Saturday, although it will cost at least $100,000 to make him eligible. Alexander joked on Wednesday that if he wins the Cal Cup Classic, "I would have to take the money from this race and give it to them."

Alexander said he thinks that Grazen may have a slight advantage in the Cal Cup Classic, having trained at Santa Anita through the summer.

While Grazen will dominate the betting, the field includes three other stakes winners - Bold Chieftain, who has won nine stakes, including the 2007 Cal Cup Classic; Star Nicholas, who won the Windy Sands Handicap at Del Mar last month; and the 4-year-old filly Lethal Heat, a four-time stakes winner. The longshots Blackbriar and One Chin Again round out the field.

Bold Chieftain was second in the 2008 California Cup Mile. A 6-year-old trained by Bill Morey, Bold Chieftain won the Governor's Handicap over 1 1/8 miles by five lengths at Sacramento, his first win in seven starts this year.

Star Nicholas rallied from last in a field of five to win the Windy Sands by a neck, his first win in six starts this year. The Classic distance of 1 1/8 miles is the longest race of Star Nicholas's career, and is a slight concern for trainer Peter Eurton.

"A mile and an eighth is a bit of a question," Eurton said. "He seems to take it well over a mile. I'm optimistic."

Lethal Heat was a late addition to the field when entries were drawn on Wednesday and trainer Barry Abrams realized the race would not have many starters. A 4-year-old filly, Lethal Heat is winless in five starts this year, but has run well in recent starts.

Lethal Heat made four starts at Del Mar, and was second or third in three graded stakes - a third to Zenyatta in the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch Stakes on Aug. 9, a third to Ferneley in the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile on Aug. 29, and a second by a neck to Gotta Have Her in the Grade 2 Palomar Handicap on turf on Sept. 9.

Abrams had Lethal Heat pointed for the $300,000 Lady's Secret Stakes, a Grade 1 for fillies and mares here on Oct. 10, until she was entered in the California Cup Classic. The Lady's Secret field is expected to include Zenyatta, the 2008 champion older female who is unbeaten in 12 starts.

"It was whether to run against Zenyatta or Grazen," Abrams said. "We decided to go for it. Hopefully, she'll do well."