02/27/2007 12:00AM

Headley feels Arson Squad will fire

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The first two legs of the Strub Series for 4-year-olds were a disaster for Arson Squad. He was wiped out at the start of the seven-furlong Malibu on Dec. 26, got the wind knocked out of him, lost position, and finished eighth.

"He's lucky he survived," trainer Bruce Headley said.

The 1 1/16-mile San Fernando was only slightly better. Switching to Garrett Gomez, Arson Squad was shuffled off the pace, and rallied to fourth.

"It was a learning experience for Gomez to get to know my horses," Headley said. "They don't pull."

Arson Squad and Gomez put it all together Feb. 3, racing 1 1/8 miles in the Strub Stakes. Arson Squad produced more speed, and won by 1 1/4 lengths to set up a meeting this Saturday with Lava Man in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.

It will be the second start of the meet for a fresh Lava Man, and fourth of the meet for Arson Squad. But if the enterprising campaign has worn on Arson Squad, he has not shown it to Headley.

"A horse either goes up, or down," Headley said. "They either get stronger through competition, or weaker. I had him fit to begin with, so he could [withstand] the series."

Arson's Squad's deliberate improvement and last-start win are likely to make him the second betting favorite in the Big Cap.

Lava Man carries 124 pounds; Arson Squad is the second highweight at 117. Headley preferred a bigger spread.

"It's not enough," Headley said. "Lava Man at 124 is a gift. The race should be called the Santa Anita Gift Shop."

Mace and Samantha Siegel own Arson Squad, a 5-for-11 gelding who has never raced 1 1/4 miles. Is the distance a concern?

"No, because he's a finisher," Headley said. "He's a closer, he's versatile, and this series of races was designed to build up a 4-year-old to compete at a mile and a quarter."

Based on fundamentals such as class and speed figures, Arson Squad cannot beat Lava Man. Headley is counting on Arson Squad's continued improvement, and one other key factor.

"Another reason he can win is because of Garrett Gomez," Headley said.

Gomez already has won 12 stakes this winter; the record is 19 set by Laffit Pincay in 1982-83, and equaled by Corey Nakatani in 1996-97.

Lava Man will be odds-on

Nine-horse fields do not typically produce odds-on favorites, but Santa Anita morning-line maker Jeff Tufts expected to open up Lava Man at 4-5 when the field for the Big Cap was drawn Wednesday morning.

"I can't see any serious money coming in on any other horse," Tufts said Tuesday. "I'm leaning toward putting [Lava Man] at 4-5, especially with Brother Derek out. The main thing - and it's obvious - is that there is going to be a big [disparity] between Lava Man and the rest of the field. I probably couldn't go lower than 4-5."

In one regard, Tufts has an easy job making a line on this year's Big Cap.

"I will not blow the favorite," he promised.

In order of assigned weight, the Big Cap field is expected to include Lava Man, Corey Nakatani, 124; Arson Squad, Gomez, 117; Awesome Gem, Tyler Baze, 116; Ball Four, Julien Leparoux, 116; Molengao, Victor Espinoza, 116; Boboman, Alex Solis, 115; McCann's Mojave, Frank Alvarado, 115; Spring at Last, David Flores, 115; and El Roblar, Richard Migliore, 114.

Tough Tiz's Sis headed to Sunland

The 3-year-old filly division gained depth Sunday when Tough Tiz's Sis overcame trouble to win a first-level allowance by a half-length. Tough Tiz's Sis, a daughter of Tiznow, was blocked behind runners at the quarter pole, came to a virtual stop, then re-rallied inside to win in 1:38.13 and earn an 84 Beyer Speed Figure. Her trainer, Bob Baffert, has scouted the division.

"As long as Rags to Riches is in town, [Tough Tiz's Sis] will not be," Baffert said.

Rags to Riches won the Grade 1 Las Virgenes with an extremely wide trip, and will be the solid favorite March 11 in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks. Tough Tiz's Sis will ship out.

Baffert said Tough Tiz's Sis will run March 18 in the $200,000 WinStar Oaks at Sunland Park. Baffert will ship San Vicente Stakes runner-up Law Breaker to Sunland the same day for the $600,000 WinStar Derby.

Notable Guest victim of strange pace

The Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap on Sunday set up wrong for Notable Guest, who finished fifth as the 9-5 favorite in the 1 1/2-mile grass race.

"I don't think he wants to be out there by himself like that," trainer Bobby Frankel said.

The race unfolded in bizarre fashion as Bravo Maestro ran off to an 18-length lead, leaving Notable Guest to "set the pace" in the second flight.

Notable Guest inherited the lead into the lane when the leader folded, but was unable to sustain his rally.

"Next time, we'll cover him up," Frankel said.

Obrigado won the San Luis Obispo by a half-length.

Three Valleys returns in Kilroe

Frankel will start Three Valleys on Saturday in the Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf, the first start for Three Valleys since a third-place finish Nov. 24 in the Grade 1 Citation at Hollywood Park.

In order of assigned weight, the field is expected to include Charmo, 118; Fast Parade, 116; Milk It Mick and Three Valleys, 116; Kip Deville and Silent Name, 115; and Boule d'Or, 113.

* Great Hunter, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, makes his 2007 debut Saturday in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes for 3-year-olds. The field for the $200,000 race at 1 1/16 miles is expected to include Boutrous, French Transition, Saint Paul, Sam P., Tap It Light, and Tiago. Tiago is a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.

* First post Saturday is noon Pacific; there is a $1 million guaranteed pool in the pick six on races 6-11.