02/15/2008 12:00AM

Johnny Eves tries taking on tougher

Benoit & Associates
Johnny Eves won the Malibu at seven furlongs, the same distance as Saturday?s San Carlos.

ARCADIA, Calif. - As far as grades are concerned, Johnny Eves, the winner of the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26, should be taking a drop in class in the Grade 2 San Carlos Handicap on Saturday at Santa Anita.

There is ample evidence to the contrary. The field for the $150,000 San Carlos Handicap features two other Grade 1 winners - Circular Quay (2006 Hopeful Stakes) and Greg's Gold (2005 Bing Crosby Handicap) - as well as Surf Cat, the winner of three consecutive Grade 2 stakes in 2006.

Johnny Eves faces those horses for the first time in the San Carlos, but is in the best form of his career.

Trained by Jay Robbins for Sharon Hilliard, Johnny Eves followed his one-length win in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes with a nose loss in the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes on Jan. 12, his first stakes appearance around two turns.

The San Carlos is at the same distance as the Malibu, which makes Johnny Eves an even more attractive contender in the field of seven.

Still, Robbins has his concerns. He wishes that Johnny Eves's final workout - five furlongs in 1:02.80 on the infield training track on Sunday - had been faster.

"I'm a little worried I haven't done enough with him," Robbins said. "I wanted to get a handy five furlongs, and he didn't. He went in 1:02 and change and I wanted a minute or so. He galloped strongly. It's probably better off this way."

The San Carlos may answer which distance is ideal for Johnny Eves.

"I don't think he excels at either" sprints or two-turn races, Robbins said. "I think he's a good miler. We've just got options with him."

Rafael Bejarano will ride Johnny Eves, replacing David Flores, who is booked to ride Idiot Proof in Saturday's Phoenix Gold Cup at Turf Paradise.

Bejarano, second in the jockey standings here through Wednesday in his first full winter in Southern California, is expected to have Johnny Eves near the front, along with Greg's Gold. Johnny Eves had the early lead in the San Fernando, and fought for the lead throughout the Malibu.

Greg's Gold led throughout his last start, the On Trust Handicap for statebreds going 7 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park on Dec. 22. A 7-year-old gelding trained by David Hofmans, Greg's Gold was a troubled second to Idiot Proof in the Grade 1 Ancient Title Stakes at six furlongs here in October. He later finished eighth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Monmouth Park over a sloppy track that Hofmans insisted he did not like. In his last start at seven furlongs, Greg's Gold won the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien Handicap at Del Mar last summer.

Surf Cat is making his second start of the meeting, having finished a quiet third in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes Handicap over six furlongs here on Jan. 21, his first start since October. Trained by Bruce Headley, Surf Cat is winless in four starts since the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park in May 2006. A 6-year-old horse, Surf Cat won the 2006 San Carlos by 2 1/2 lengths.

Circular Quay is something of an unknown element. Making his first start since finishing sixth in the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs last July, he is running in his first sprint since winning the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. His only win in seven subsequent starts came in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby last March. Circular Quay later finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Preakness Stakes.

The move back to sprints could redefine Circular Quay's career.

"That's what we want to find out," said Michael McCarthy, who directs trainer Todd Pletcher's California stable. "There is a lot of money sprinting."

Circular Quay is unbeaten in three starts at less than a mile, including an electrifying rally in the Grade 3 Bashford Manor Stakes at six furlongs at Churchill Downs in July 2006.

He is likely to trail early in the San Carlos, and take a more prominent role in the final half-mile.

"I imagine he'll run away and place himself," McCarthy said. "Hopefully, he shows the kick he had in 2006."