02/27/2007 1:00AM

Laid-back threat from Lobo

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Paulo Lobo will run the improving Molengao in Saturday's Big Cap.P

ARCADIA, Calif. - Two rows of bright red feed tubs, 14 to a row, were neatly aligned in the breezeway of Paolo Lobo's Hollywood Park barn. It was late Tuesday morning, time for brunch, and one of the hungriest customers was at his webbing, starting to drool.

Molengao, a caramel coated chestnut with a floor to ceiling blaze, has emerged from an evenly matched bag of contenders to pose what could be the most serious threat to defending champion Lava Man in Saturday's 70th running of the $1omillion Santa Anita Handicap.

Molengao's closing kick to win the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 4 looked good from most angles, especially since he even had to make a nifty course correction while in full flight to catch Ball Four at the line. The performance turned Molengao into the "now" horse in terms of the Santa Anita Handicap, but for Lobo, the word he would use is "finally."

Bred in Brazil by his owner, the TNT Stud of Goncalo Torrealba, Molengao has been a work in progress since he began his California career in early 2005. It took him nearly two years and a dozen starts to finally break through with a victory in stakes company.

"You have to remember, when he ran against Lava Man that year in the Californian, he was really only 3o1/2 years old," Lobo said, alluding to Molengao's Southern Hemispheric roots.

Any disadvantage in maturity is long gone. Lava Man is 6, while Molengao turned a biological 5 last fall. He looks the part of a good horse, too, with plenty of leg and neck attached to a body that offers quiet balance. From the back, the more narrow Molengao would never be confused with a Hummer like Lava Man. But the Santa Anita Handicap is every bit of 1 1/4 miles, and often it is the true stayer that carries the day.

In Lobo, Molengao has a classic Brazilian horseman in his corner. Now 38, he burst onto the North American scene in 2002 with champion 3-year-old filly Farda Amiga, winner of the Kentucky Oaks and the Alabama, and runner-up to Horse of the Year Azeri in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Farda Amiga was one of just six horses Lobo trained that year. Those 28 feed tubs set out for his current stable are a testament to his growing reputation - enhanced by the brilliant sprinter-miler Pico Central - although most of Lobo's clientele still comes from South American sources.

Certainly, Molengao's heritage plays in his favor. No major North American race has been won more often by South Americans, over a greater span of years, than the Santa Anita Handicap.

Their run started in 1939 with Kayak II, Seabiscuit's stablemate, and continued with Olhaverry (1947, before a crowd of 83,768), Talon (1948), Miche (1952), Cougar II (1973), Lord at War (1985), Siphon (1997), and Malek (1998). Can Molengao join them?

"He is a different horse than he was a year ago, and much more mature than when he first ran against Lava Man," Lobo insisted. "Last year, even when he ran good enough to finish second in the Sunset Handicap, he had a puffy ankle. We were nursing it along. Since last fall, when he started training on the Cushion Track, it's gone. No more ankle.

"When you have a healthy horse, you have a happy horse," Lobo added. "They eat better. They sleep better. They train better. Everything is helped."

As a result, the horse is beginning to live up to his name. Lobo defined "molengao" as Brazilian for "a slow person, a nice guy but lazy." Since Lobo's English is far superior to this reporter's Portuguese (bossa nova and Ipanema pretty much exhaust my vocabulary), it took a moment of nuanced translation to figure out that to be molengao is simply to be laid back and easy going. Very Californian.

As far as running styles are concerned, many horses with classy, lasting speed have made a significant impact upon the Santa Anita Handicap through the years. The list of such winners includes Ack Ack, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Tiznow, Farma Way, Ruhlmann, Lord at War, Free House, Sir Beaufort, Triple Bend, Pretense, Crozier and, more to the point, Lava Man, who pushed the pace of With Distinction and High Limit last year, then held off Magnum's rush to win by three-quarters of a length.

Stretch-runners are an exciting breed, but if Molengao is going to catch Lava Man somewhere near the end of the Santa Anita Handicap, he will need to be a little less laid back than he has been in the past.

"In the San Antonio he was running closer early," Lobo said. "And I think going a mile and one-quarter, he will be closer than he was in some of his other races. Also, I think because he is feeling better since training on the new surface, he wants to show a little more speed.

"I have been watching Lava Man train," Lobo added. "He looks very, very good. And he will be very tough to beat. But I would like to try."