12/30/2009 1:00AM

List of Big Cap prospects reveals division in flux


ARCADIA, Calif. - The $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap is intended to be the showcase race for older horses at the prestigious Santa Anita winter-spring meeting. It's a Grade 1 run over 1 1/4 miles and has a history that dates back to the 1930s.

This year, the race will be run March 6. It may take that long to find a suitable field.

With the Dubai World Cup in the Middle East expected to be worth $10 million March 27, the two leading older males on the Santa Anita backstretch are not being considered for the Big Cap. Instead, Gio Ponti, the runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Classic here in November, and Richard's Kid, the winner of the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in September, are likely to use the $150,000 San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 7 as a tune-up for Dubai.

This year, the absence of such horses from the Big Cap will be felt. The handicap division lacks depth among recently turned 4-year-olds and older horses, at least as the new year arrives.

"Someone has to step up," said Dan Ward, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer's assistant.

There are plenty of candidates, horses that have raced in stakes with various levels of success and could develop into division leaders in coming weeks.

The 4-year-olds include Misremembered and Papa Clem, both 2008 graded stakes winners who were second and third in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes last Saturday, and Chocolate Candy, who won the El Cajon Stakes at Del Mar in September.

Aside from Gio Ponti and Richard's Kid, the older horses to watch include Mast Track, High Court Drama, and Neko Bay, the first three finishers of the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park last month; Ready's Echo, who was second in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in November; and Nownownow, who won the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes here last January.

The notable absentees are Rail Trip, the winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup last July who is being prepared by trainer Ron Ellis for a summer and fall campaign; Well Armed, who is near a return to trainer Eoin Harty's barn after suffering an ankle injury last summer; and Informed, a two-time graded stakes winner last year.

Of course, the list of Big Cap prospects would change if Richard's Kid or Gio Ponti stays home.

A 5-year-old, Richard's Kid has not won since posting a 24-1 upset in the Pacific Classic on Labor Day weekend. He followed with a third in the Grade 1 Goodwood Stakes and a sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, finishing 5 1/2 lengths behind Zenyatta, the retired undefeated mare.

Trainer Bob Baffert said Richard's Kid could start in the $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap here Jan. 9.

"We're trying to make Dubai with him," he said. "I think he would be tough there."

Gio Ponti's schedule is more of a puzzle, trainer Christophe Clement said earlier this week. Clement said the time between the San Antonio and the Dubai World Cup is a little too long and that the Santa Anita Handicap is definitely too soon.

"It's tough to do two tough races [in March] and ship and go for the World Cup," he said. "There is nothing definite planned."

Gio Ponti remained in Southern California after losing the BC Classic by a length.

"We jogged him for 20 or 25 days, and we've galloped him since," Clement said. "In a week or two, I'll decide."

This would not be the first time leading handicap horses in Southern California will have bypassed the Big Cap for Dubai. Notable examples include Dubai World Cup winners Silver Charm (1998), Captain Steve (2001), Pleasantly Perfect (2004), and Well Armed (2009).

The Big Cap winner may not even live here. As the season unfolds, a few Florida- or Midwest-based horses could be sent to California for the San Antonio or Santa Anita Handicap.

"If I had an Einstein, I'd be coming back in the Santa Anita Handicap," said Harty, referring to the 2009 Big Cap winner.

There is always a chance a late-developing colt or horse will be the focus. In 2007, Heatseeker won the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood, lost the San Pasqual and San Antonio handicaps, and won the Big Cap.

Mr. Hot Stuff could be that kind of horse, but he will need to improve. A full brother to multiple stakes winner Colonel John trained by Harty, Mr. Hot Stuff will start in the San Fernando. A win there could lead to the Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds Feb. 6.

In the San Fernando, Mr. Hot Stuff will face Rendezvous, who won the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby on turf in the summer for Hollendorfer and was third in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby on synthetic track last spring at Golden Gate Fields. Rendezvous will be pointed for the San Fernando, which will include a few runners from the Malibu.

John Shirreffs trains Mast Track and Neko Bay. Mast Track joined his stable following the Native Diver after being acquired by Frank Stronach. Shirreffs has spent recent weeks learning more about Mast Track and said the San Pasqual will arrive too soon to run Mast Track. The San Antonio, however, is an ideal fit for the horse.

It's possible Life Is Sweet, the 5-year-old mare who won the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic in November and is a starter in Saturday's $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap against fillies and mares, will start against males during the meeting. Trained by Shirreffs, Life Is Sweet was third in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup over 1 1/4 miles, the same distance as the Santa Anita Handicap.

"It's a little premature to point her for that," Shirreffs said. "But on her past performances it wouldn't be impossible."