01/14/2008 1:00AM

Likely champ has her limits


NEW YORK – What an interesting weekend Bob Baffert-trained runners had at Santa Anita. A day after his Air Commander recorded a 52-1 upset in Saturday’s Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes, he sent out Indian Blessing to win the Grade 2 Santa Ynez at 1-10, and there is no typo there. And the weird thing about it, it’s hard to tell which one was more impressive.

It’s always great when a champion returns to the races. And though Indian Blessing isn’t officially a champion yet, that formality will be addressed at next week’s Eclipse Award ceremony, when she surely will be awarded the 2-year-old filly title of 2007. Indian Blessing is thoroughly deserving. She was dominant winning her three starts last year, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and the Grade 1 Frizette Stakes.

But in the final stages of the Santa Ynez, Indian Blessing was anything but dominant. She looked good flashing her trademark speed, pulling clear through an opening half-mile in 43.76 seconds and remaining in control after six furlongs in 1:07.14 over a ridiculously fast Cushion Track. But she tired noticeably in the last of the seven furlongs and just held off the unheralded Golden Doc A.

Although Indian Blessing also tired noticeably in the late stages of her big wins last year, it’s hard to get down on her over her performance Sunday. She was coming off a layoff and running for the first time on a synthetic surface. And she did stay on well enough to set a Cushion Track record of 1:19.89 for the seven furlongs, but Cushion Track records were falling like dominos over the weekend. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to think, even more so after the Santa Ynez, that Indian Blessing’s real future lies in races up to a mile, at most.

Air Commander’s huge odds in the San Fernando on Saturday were not necessarily an indictment of his abilities as a racehorse. While it is true he disappointed finishing fourth in his two comeback outings late last year, Air Commander had not gone off higher than 2-1 in his last six starts, which were all around two turns. In fact, there was a time early last year when Air Commander was a legitimate top 20 candidate for the Kentucky Derby, especially after winning two straight races followed by a second in the San Felipe.

Instead, Air Commander’s price Saturday was more a reflection of how so many people viewed the San Fernando as Tiago’s race to lose, and if he were to lose, they saw Ravel as the only one who could beat him. The notion that the San Fernando was a two-horse race proved correct, only the two horses turned out to be Air Commander and Johnny Eves. This pair went around the track an unthreatened one-two, with Johnny Eves setting the pace and responding when headed in the stretch by Air Commander, only to lose by the bob of a nose.

The San Fernando could be taken as verification of Johnny Eves’s emergence as a legitimate stakes horse after his upset of last month’s Grade 1 Malibu Stakes. But the strength of the Malibu was seriously questioned when it produced a winning Beyer Speed Figure of only 94, and it is fair to question just how strong the San Fernando was, too. Santa Anita’s Cushion Track was also lightning-fast on Saturday, and it was bad news for the San Fernando that it was not run in track-record time, for the two graded stakes that preceded it on the card both produced track records. In fact, the San Fernando earned the same Beyer Figure of 94 that the Malibu got. That made this the second-slowest San Fernando in terms of Beyer Figures since Beyers first became publicly available 16 years ago.

As for Tiago and Ravel, they finished third and fourth Saturday without excuse. Tiago had dead aim on the first two finishers late on the far turn but didn’t gain an inch. Ravel was a little farther back early, but he had an opportunity to make an impression in the stretch and could not. The jury is still out on how good Ravel really is, whereas the thinking on Tiago, based on his wins last year in the Goodwood, Swaps, and Santa Anita Derby, is that he can do a lot better.

With due respect to Game Face, who buried her field in the Grade 2 Old Hat Stakes at Gulfstream Park, the most eye-catching performance of the weekend was El Gato Malo’s score in Saturday’s San Rafael at Santa Anita.

Yes, El Gato Malo did get an absolute dream trip, laying off the pace behind a three-way battle that produced fractions of 22.25 seconds, 44.34, and 1:07.90 and that took down the Baffert-trained and favored Massive Drama, who might strictly be a one-turn horse right now, anyway. Truth be told, El Gato Malo, who came from off the pace to win the first two starts of his career easily, would have been a stiff not to have cashed in on a setup like this. Still, he impressed with the way he cashed in, inhaling the front-runners and running away from the competition like a good Kentucky Derby hopeful should. And given how fast the track was, El Gato Malo also did the right thing by lowering Santa Anita’s one-mile track record to 1:33.37.