07/07/2011 3:53PM

Hollywood Park: Plenty at stake for Twirling Candy in Hollywood Gold Cup

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. – A win by Twirling Candy in Saturday’s $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup would put him solidly on course for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and solidify his hold at the top of the California handicap division.

The race is part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge program, offering a fees-paid berth to the winner for the BC Classic at Churchill Downs in November.

HOLLYWOOD GOLD CUP: Get past performances and watch the full card live »

In the last six months, Twirling Candy has risen to the top of California’s older male division by winning three of four starts, all in stakes. The blemish was a troubled fifth in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 5, a setback somewhat erased when he won the Grade 2 Californian Stakes over 1 1/8 miles at Hollywood Park on June 4.

A win Saturday in the Gold Cup would be Twirling Candy’s first over 1 1/4 miles and provide momentum for a potential championship.

“Some horse, hopefully him, will put together a string of races,” trainer John Sadler said.

The Gold Cup is the main race on Saturday’s 10-race program, which includes the $150,000 Swaps Stakes for 3-year-olds. The Gold Cup will be televised in a one-hour program by ESPN from 4-5 p.m. Pacific.

There is a familiar list of names that will challenge Twirling Candy, including Game On Dude, who won the Santa Anita Handicap but has lost his last two starts; Setsuko, who was second in the Big Cap and Californian; and defending champion Awesome Gem.

First Dude, winner of the Grade 3 Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs in May and the runner-up in the 2010 Preakness Stakes, is trained by Bob Baffert, who also starts Game On Dude. Miss Match, winner of the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita in March, is the lone female in the field. Soul Candy and Dark Cove will be longshots.

Twirling Candy is the 122-pound highweight and drew the rail. The post position may affect strategy, although Sadler would not divulge tactics Thursday. The race does not have a clear front-runner, and Twirling Candy is capable of setting the pace, as is Game On Dude, who was near the front before finishing third in the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap on May 30.

BREEDERS' CUP CHALLENGE: Racing schedule, replays, and past winners »

Baffert said that Game On Dude may be best suited to having the lead.

“Game On Dude is steady,” Baffert said. “You’ve got to let him run. Last time we went too slow early. We’ll let him run away and get a nice comfortable stride.”

Sadler said that the tactical decisions on Twirling Candy will be left to jockey Joel Rosario.

“I wish we didn’t have the 1 hole, but I think we’ll be fine,” Sadler said. “I wouldn’t say what the strategy will be. I think he’s fairly versatile, so that will be Joel’s decision.”

In the Californian, Twirling Candy proved to be a tough ride for Rosario. He was as close as fourth and as far back as sixth of seven horses in the first six furlongs of the race while pulling hard. Rosario guided Twirling Candy to the outside on the turn, and the 4-year-old colt finished well to win by 1 1/4 lengths under a hand ride.

Since that race, Sadler has concentrated on having Twirling Candy run behind horses in workouts. Considering Twirling Candy’s impressive finish in the Californian, Sadler is not overly concerned about the Gold Cup distance, dismissing the Big Cap loss because of a bumping incident in early stretch.

“He looked so good at a mile and an eighth the other day,” Sadler said. “In the Santa Anita Handicap, how many lengths of trouble did he have? Nothing went right. I guess they wanted him to be hit on both sides and rebreak.”

Setsuko was part of the bumping incident in the Big Cap and lost by a nose to Game On Dude.

“I wish he’d learn to win,” trainer Richard Mandella said.

Mandella watched Twirling Candy draw off in the Californian and knows how difficult the favorite will be Saturday.

“Twirling Candy had every reason to get beat, and he didn’t,” Mandella said.