03/06/2007 12:00AM

Longshot rider Chavez finally at home


ARCADIA, Calif. - The odds were stacked against veteran jockey Jorge Chavez when he relocated to California last summer. In one way, the odds have changed very little this winter at Santa Anita, where in Chavez's first 115 mounts he had only two favorites.

"Whether it's the favorite or not, I just ride to win," he said Tuesday during morning workouts. The approach is working; Chavez has been the surprise of the meet. He entered the week seventh in the jockey standings with 19 wins. His mounts have generated a gaudy $3.84 return per $2 win bet.

Bettors and horsemen are catching on to Chavez's quiet, sit-still style at Santa Anita, where his winning percentage of 16.5 ranks behind only Garrett Gomez (24.4) and Victor Espinoza (16.9) among circuit regulars.

Chavez, 45, said he is selling his home in New York to make a permanent home in Southern California.

"I love it here," he said. "I'm getting on more horses and getting more shots."

The move was partly out of necessity for Chavez, who won the 2001 Kentucky Derby on Monarchos. He broke his back in 2003, followed by a broken collarbone in 2006 that sidelined him six months.

"It was weird," he said. "I was winning races in Florida, but I was very unlucky [with injuries]."

Chavez's wife, Margarita, suggested that he "try something different" by going to California. Chavez did not catch on right away, but since teaming in the fall with agent Tommy Ball, the congenial rider has emerged as the premier longshot rider on the circuit.

Eight of Chavez's 19 winners paid more than $20, including payoffs of $39, $61, and $98.

Chavez is not concerned with odds. "I'm looking for a Derby horse," he said.

Only four to take on Rags to Riches

Las Virgenes Stakes winner Rags to Riches is expected to have four rivals Sunday in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, including the second, third, and fourth finishers from the Las Virgenes - Baroness Thatcher, Runway Rosie, and Cash Included. Maiden winner Silver Swallow also is expected to enter.

Baroness Thatcher worked five furlongs Monday at Hollywood Park in 1:00.

"She's doing well, and worked well," trainer Patrick Biancone said. "She seems to improve race to race." Baroness Thatcher won the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel prior to her runner-up finish in the Las Virgenes.

Cash Included finished fourth in the Las Virgenes, her first start since the Breeders' Cup. Trainer Craig Dollase predicts improvement Sunday.

"She really bounced out of her race well, and we've got the screws tight for this one," he said.

Cash Included won the Grade 1 Oak Leaf last fall before finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Silver Swallow will enter the Oaks with the highest last-start Beyer Speed Figure. She earned a 96 in winning a seven-furlong maiden sprint Feb. 18.

Arson Squad nursing foot abscess

Arson Squad, winner of the Grade 2 Strub Stakes, will be out of training for six weeks. He was scratched from the Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday because of a foot abscess.

"We have to let his foot grow out; there is nothing coming up anyway," trainer Bruce Headley said.

Arson Squad was the morning line 9-2 second choice in the Big Cap, a race Headley believes he could have won.

"I had my horse at his peak," he said.

However, the horses Arson Squad defeated in the Strub for 4-year-olds did poorly against older rivals in the Big Cap. Strub runner-up Spring at Last finished fifth. Strub fifth-place finisher Awesome Gem finished last. Arson Squad will return to training in late April, according to Headley, and point toward a summer campaign at Del Mar that would include the Grade 1 Pacific Classic.

Awesome Gem takes a break

San Fernando Stakes winner Awesome Gem also will get a break after his disappointing Big Cap effort.

"He got bumped pretty good at the break, and it kind of wiped him out mentally," trainer Craig Dollase said. "We'll back off, and point for a summer campaign."

Dollase also said that Boutrous, fourth in the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Robert B. Lewis, could return for the Santa Anita Derby.

"He needs more ground," Dollase said.

Ball Four goes off dirt

Ball Four, sixth in the Big Cap, will not race on dirt again anytime soon. Runner-up in the San Antonio, Ball Four set a slow pace and tired to sixth in the Big Cap.

"We know he has one more gear on Polytrack," trainer Patrick Biancone said. "Polytrack is going to be his favorite."

Ball Four won the Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Classic on Polytrack at Turfway Park last fall.

Biancone said that Bayeaux, runner-up by a neck in the Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Mile Handicap, will race next April 13 at Keeneland in the Grade 2 Maker's Mark Mile.

"He didn't switch leads, so we'll work on that," the trainer said.

Racing office beats the handicappers

The Santa Anita racing office was in a celebratory mood, basking in the upset victory over press box handicappers in the annual Big Cap Day handicapping contest. The press box had won the contest every year from 2003 to 2006, until the surprise win Saturday by the racing office.

Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle credited staff camaraderie.

"We went bowling together [early in the week], and when Saturday came along, there was no question we were working together and that we were going to win," he said.

The mutuels-based contest was not close - racing office payoffs totaled $99.30, the press box's $77.70.