02/27/2006 1:00AM

Losing the bust label

High Limit goes for his third stakes win of the Santa Anita meet Saturday in the Big Cap.

Try as he might last year with High Limit, nothing seemed to work for trainer Bobby Frankel. He tinkered with blinkers, but without success. A switch was made to turf, but that didn't work either. Finally, after six straight losses by High Limit, Frankel simply decided to regroup.

"I was experimenting, but nothing worked," Frankel said. "I just had to stop on him."

The red light has now turned green. After a four-month freshening, High Limit has resurrected his once-promising career. He has won two stakes races at the current Santa Anita meeting - the San Pasqual Handicap and Strub Stakes - and will go for the biggest and richest victory of his career on Saturday, when he competes in the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.

It is a remarkable turnaround for a colt who went from one of the elite 3-year-olds of last spring to the answer to a trivia question: who finished last in last year's Kentucky Derby?

High Limit was on the fast track to success last year. When he returned from a 4 1/2-month layoff to capture the Louisiana Derby and remain unbeaten in three starts, High Limit became one of the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

But he could not rise to the challenge. High Limit suffered his first loss when he finished a distant second to Bandini in the Blue Grass Stakes, and he was one of several front-runners who were fried trying to chase the hot Derby pace.

Frankel put blinkers on High Limit for the Preakness, and he ran a bit better, but still faded to finish fifth after being pressured early by the overmatched Going Wild. Blinkers stayed on for the Leonard Richards Stakes at Delaware, but High Limit disappointed again, finishing a distant third in a five-horse field as the 3-5 favorite.

Grasping for a solution, Frankel moved High Limit to the turf for two races, the Hall of Fame at Saratoga and the Del Mar Derby. In both cases, High Limit tired and finished out of the money after setting or pressing the pace.

"It was just too much for him last year," Frankel said from his barn at Hollywood Park, where High Limit is based. "We rushed him a little, trying to make the Derby. He just never got a chance to blossom. He needed to be freshened."

High Limit got that chance following the Del Mar Derby on Labor Day, Sept. 5. The time off, Frankel said, proved beneficial.

"He looks much better than last year," Frankel said. "He's matured. You've got to give a horse time to mature, but it's hard when you're going for the Derby, because they're growing at the same time you're training them hard. It's hard for them to blossom. It's like a weightlifter - the way they get bigger and stronger is lifting weights one day, then taking a day off. He needed time off."

In addition to being physically stronger, High Limit has learned to better ration his speed. In the Strub, he was able to sit third, behind a moderate pace, before launching a strong winning move entering the stretch. He clearly enjoys Santa Anita, where he is 2 for 2. And his success coincides with Patrick Valenzuela, Santa Anita's leading rider, taking the controls.

"He's a big asset," Frankel said. "Horses are running great for him. I don't know if it's Patrick or the horse, but I'm not going to experiment."

But even though High Limit is racing in top form and comes off a race in which he earned the highest Beyer Speed Figure (109) of his career, Frankel said he is still anxious. High Limit will be stretching out to 1 1/4 miles in the Santa Anita Handicap. His only two races beyond 1 1/8 miles, the distance of the Strub, were the 1 1/4-mile Derby and 1 3/16-mile Preakness.

"I'm still not convinced he can get a mile and a quarter," Frankel said.

In addition, High Limit will be conceding weight in the Big Cap to Giacomo, who is proven at the distance and finished in front of High Limit in the Derby and Preakness last year. High Limit got two pounds from Giacomo in the Strub and beat Giacomo by five lengths, but that was Giacomo's first race since the Belmont Stakes and was at a shorter distance than Saturday's race.

If High Limit captures the Santa Anita Handicap, it will be Frankel's third win in the race in the last five years. He also won it with Milwaukee Brew in 2002 and 2003.

Saturday is an important day for Frankel. In addition to High Limit, Frankel will start recent allowance winner Marenostrum in the Santa Anita Handicap. He also will send out European import Cacique in the Grade 1, $300,000 Kilroe Mile and recent maiden winner Latent Heat in the Grade 2, $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes.