01/28/2004 1:00AM

Low handle forces purse cuts


ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita announced on Wednesday that overnight purses will be cut 6.5 percent and that $450,000 has been eliminated from the stakes program because handle did not meet expectations through the first five weeks of the meeting.

According to a statement issued by the racetrack, total handle has fallen 11 percent. The losses have mostly come offtrack, with a 7 percent decline in statewide handle and a 17 percent drop in nationwide handle. Ontrack handle has fallen 2 percent, while ontrack attendance has risen 1 percent.

"It was necessary to cut purses because of total handle being less than anticipated," general manager Chris McCarron said in a statement.

Last week, former track president Jack Liebau and Drew Couto, the executive director of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, warned of the purse cut.

Santa Anita is owned by Magna Entertainment, which also owns Gulfstream Park, near Miami. Both tracks have experienced a drop in nationwide handle because of a Magna policy that pulled its signal from a majority of account wagering services in the United States.

By doing so, Magna has encouraged customers to open accounts with its account wagering service, XpressBet. Some horseplayers have reacted by boycotting Magna tracks.

A purse cut at Santa Anita marks the third consecutive Southern California meeting to slash purses. Purses were cut by 10 percent for seven of the final eight days of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting in late October and early November, after track officials cited lower-than-expected business. The cut also included the elimination of the $200,000 Las Palmas Handicap on Nov. 8.

In early December, Hollywood Park reduced purses by 8 percent for the final three weeks of its six-week fall meeting, citing an overpayment from 2002. Conversely, Del Mar and Fairplex Park made a retroactive purse increase last month after stronger-than-expected business at the 2003 meetings at those tracks.

A reduction in both overnight purses and stakes is a policy of the TOC, which by law must approve changes to purses at California tracks.

The purse cut takes effect for Saturday's overnight races. The first stakes with a reduced purse is the Grade 3 Las Flores Handicap for female sprinters on Feb. 22, which was reduced by $25,000, to $100,000. The Grade 3 San Simeon Handicap for turf sprinters on April 18 was cut by same amount, to $100,000.

Eight races have been cut by $50,000, the most prominent being the Kilroe Mile on turf on March 6, which will be worth $350,000.

The other seven and their new purses are:

* Three major turf marathons - the San Luis Rey Stakes on March 20 and the Santa Barbara Handicap for fillies and mares on April 17, worth $200,000, and the Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap on April 18, closing day, worth $250,000. The San Juan Capistrano was worth $400,000 from 1996 to 2003.

* The San Carlos Handicap on March 7, a top sprint, worth $150,000.

* The San Bernardino Handicap on April 3, the La Puente Stakes on April 10, and the Providencia Stakes on April 11, each worth $100,000.

Congaree breezes into San Antonio

Congaree, an 11-time stakes winner and one of the top handicap horses of 2003, breezed a half-mile in 48 seconds on Wednesday. Trained by Bob Baffert, Congaree will carry top weight of 124 pounds in Saturday's $250,000 San Antonio Handicap.

The San Antonio is a major prep for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6. Run over 1 1/8 miles, the San Antonio is expected to draw five or six starters, including Fleetstreet Dancer, Pleasantly Perfect, Star Cross, Toccet, and Total Impact.

Toccet, 4, was supplemented to the San Antonio for $5,000 but may still be routed to the $300,000 Strub Stakes on Feb. 7, trainer John Scanlan said. Scanlan said that he and owner Daniel Borislow are likely to enter Toccet in the San Antonio, review the race, and make a decision on whether to run or wait a week. Part of the decision hinges on whether Congaree and Pleasantly Perfect both start in the San Antonio. As of Wednesday, both were on schedule.

"We are hoping that one wouldn't show up," Scanlan said. "I'd like to run in the Strub. I'll take on Congaree down the road in the Big Cap."

The Strub Stakes is restricted to 4-year-olds and run over 1 1/8 miles. The candidates include Buckland Manor, Domestic Dispute, During, and Spensive.

Heat Haze to stay in training

Heat Haze finished second to Islington in Eclipse Award voting for the outstanding turf female of 2003, but unlike the European-based champion, she will stay in training this year.

Trainer Bobby Frankel said last weekend that Heat Haze would resume serious training this week, with a spring comeback likely. One possible start for her 2004 campaign is the Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby undercard on May 1.

Heat Haze won 4 of 7 starts last year, including two Grade 1 races - the Beverly D. Stakes and the Matriarch Stakes. But her fourth-place finish behind Islington in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf hurt her chances for a championship.

"I really thought she deserved it," Frankel said. "She ran the whole year."

Grade 1 winner Dessert is retired

Dessert, the winner of the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks last August in her stakes debut, has been retired, according to Richard Mulhall, the racing manager for The Thoroughbred Corp.

Dessert made her final start in the Avigaition Stakes on Nov. 9, finishing last of seven. She was pre-entered for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf but did not start due to a minor illness.

By Storm Cat out of Windsharp, the 1996 Canadian champion older female, Dessert won 3 of 8 starts and $259,560.

Mulhall said she will be bred to Kingmambo and is likely to be sold at the Keeneland breeding stock sale in November.

Lo Duca hopes to catch a win

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca is a co-owner of The Weej, a maiden claimer who starts in Friday's third race.

The Weej is winless in two starts, having finished sixth and eighth in two maiden claimers. A gelding, The Weej is trained by Simon Bray.