02/07/2008 12:00AM

Looking to fill an opening at top

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PHOENIX – There’s a big, empty chair at the top of the handicap division out West, and Sunday’s Grade 2 San Antonio may go a ways in determining who gets the seat when the music stops – at least for now.

Lava Man is on the farm vacationing after a couple grueling years in which he achieved more than just about any horse in the history of Southern California racing. But there’s serious concern about whether he can come back the same horse, and his absence leaves a vacancy at the top.

The 4-year-olds are still sorting themselves out, and Saturday’s Grade 2 Strub was to match Tiago, Air Commander, and Great Hunter. Can Daytona take his turf dominance to the Cushion Track? Ravel was supposed to thrive, but he has packed his bags and left the scene, looking for dirt.

In Sunday’s San Antonio, any one of the nine contestants can win, and the odds figure to be fairly well bunched. There is no dominant horse; no obviously overmatched horse, either.

Here’s a quick look at each of the nine:

Awesome Gem – He was good enough last year to finish within a half-length of Student Council in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic, within a nose of Tiago in the Grade 1 Goodwood, and then run third behind Horse of the Year Curlin in the Breeders’ Cup Classic while beating Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and champion older horse Lawyer Ron. But is this just a prep for next month’s Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap?

Racketeer – Came back from a lengthy layoff to be a strong second to Heatseeker in Hollywood’s Grade 3 Native Diver, but failed to make an impact when fifth behind many of these in the Grade 2 San Pasqual at Santa Anita on Jan. 12. He’d been awfully consistent up to the San Pasqual.

Big Booster – Routinely outruns his odds. He won on Hollywood’s Cushion Track last May at 25-1; was third, beaten less than a length by Lava Man, in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup at 24-1; and was third at 15-1, beaten a length by Tiago and Awesome Gem, in the Goodwood at Santa Anita Sept. 29. Effective as he’s been, he’s still looking for stakes win No. 1.

Zappa – He has won 4 of his last 5. The one loss came on the turf, and it was by just a half-length in a stakes at Golden Gate. He relishes the synthetics, apparently, as he’s 3 for 4 on them, including beating many of these in the Grade 2 San Pasqual here last month.

Rathor – Flashed much potential when he first came to the U.S. from England, posting three straight big wins in New York before losing when pitched in against Horse of the Year Invasor in the Grade 1 Suburban. His form since has been spotty, but a third on the turf here last month gives trainer Bobby Frankel enough reason to give him another go against top company.

Heatseeker – Powered home to win the Grade 3 Native Diver at Hollywood on Dec. 8, beating some of these at 30-1, as if he were ready to take up the mantle of division leader. He lost little when third in the Grade 2 San Pasqual here last month, as he continued on gamely to the wire. But was that Native Diver run as good as it gets?

Well Armed – Was once considered Kentucky Derby material while in England. Still, he couldn’t have asked for a better trip than he got in the San Pasqual, and he still couldn’t beat Zappa.

Sweetnorthernsaint – People forget he was the favorite in the 2006 Kentucky Derby when he finished seventh behind Barbaro. Maintained strong form last spring, but he followed a layoff with a dull run at Turfway Park. Was that merely a function of the layoff or is there reason to be skeptical now?

Student Council – Got a new lease on life last summer when moved to Del Mar’s Polytrack, popping up to win the Pacific Classic. To show it was no fluke, he came right back to win the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup. The Grade 1 Japan Cup Dirt was a disaster, and now he must come back off that run, and off a layoff at a trip that may be short of what he prefers.

You can see there are questions galore here. Maybe we simply need to go back to basics. Well Armed figures to be on the lead, but Sweetnorthersaint may push him to some brisk splits. That may again set things up wonderfully for Zappa. He has the speed to get position and the ability to pounce first and get first run on the closers. Best of all, he looks like a new horse on these synthetic surfaces, and this distance should be right in his wheelhouse.