03/09/2009 12:00AM

Matto Mondo at head of parade


ARCADIA, Calif. - Handicapping was a lot less complicated when racing surfaces in California were conventional dirt.

It was easy to recognize an inferior dirt race. A bunched field at the wire usually meant the race was slow and unlikely to produce winners.

Visual interpretation was simple. One could view a race such as the Grade 2 Strub Stakes - the first eight finishers separated by less than two lengths - and arrive at the reasonable conclusion it was a bad race.

A handicapper might still choose to knock the Strub and its winner, Cowboy Cal. That is easy. The hard part is being right about the negative opinion. And know this - these days on synthetic, like on turf, a bunched field does not necessarily signal a bad race.

While bending time-tested parameters of visual interpretation is difficult, so is shifting gears smack in the middle of a season. And handicappers who watched Pro-Ride swallow one front-runner after another the first month of the meet have been forced recently to widen their scope.

The past few weeks, because of rain or watering or heat or cold, the profile has shifted. Pro-Ride no longer is death for speed. A front-runner such as Matto Mondo might have been a stone bet-against in January, but not in March. Now, speed holds.

The Santa Anita Handicap will be run Saturday on Pro-Ride, and two key handicapping factors need revision - negative impression of the Strub won by Cowboy Cal, and the notion that front-runners such as Matto Mondo are at a disadvantage in route races on the new synthetic surface.

The validity of both ideas is expired. No surprise. Handicapping survival in the synthetic era requires one suspend, or amend, or adjust preconceptions. True, bunched fields once characterized a bad race, but that was on dirt. And front-runners once were compromised on Pro-Ride, but only before winter arrived at wet Santa Anita.

Maybe the 2009 Big Cap is not too difficult. Maybe finding the winner only requires one to tune in to the ever-changing nuances of Pro-Ride. And whether you like Matto Mando or not, he is the key to the race and the speed of the field.

In a traditional sense, a Group 1-winning miler from Chile who is the lone speed against a field of closers would be considered a standout in the Big Cap.

But when you compile a list of main-track Grade 1's in California since the circuit went synthetic, you'd find a series of winners that came from far back - Stardom Bound, Zenyatta, Ventura, Heatseeker, Go Between, Raven's Pass, and Street Boss.

By comparison, a horse like Matto Mondo is a different breed. His style is gas. And his turnaround began Dec. 27, second day of the winter meet, when he caught a paceless turf allowance and wired the field at 13-1. Big deal.

It was what Matto Mondo did next out that was impressive. He sat just off the most severe route fractions of the meet (45.61 seconds and 1:09.59) and then waltzed home in 1:34.61 for the mile.

It was a freaky performance, the likes of which only The Pamplemousse has come close to duplicating. The fractions Matto Mondo ran last time would put him on a five-length lead Saturday at every call, at least to the head of the lane.

Think about that. A Group 1 winner stretching out as the lone speed over a track he loves. Five lengths clear at every call? Which way to the window?

However, many horseplayers fear backing a speed horse going two turns on Pro-Ride. Until recently, speed died no matter the pace. But as Matto Mondo's new jockey Rafael Bejarano explained, the profile changed when it started to rain.

"When it rains, the track gets better," Bejarano said. "When it doesn't rain, that's when a lot of horses come from behind."

Early in the meet, when it was dry, it did not matter how fast or slow a horse went out front. They all stopped. But recently, speed has held in both warm and wet weather.

The Pamplemousse won a blazingly fast race in January at one mile and last weekend he stretched his speed to 1 1/8 miles in the Sham. Suddenly the most impressive wins of the meet have been by front-runners - The Pamplemousse and Matto Mondo.

Brilliance may or may not be a desired attribute at 1 1/4 miles, but there is no knocking established form on Pro-Ride. And none are more established than the already-grizzled 4-year-old Cowboy Cal.

His classy campaign includes a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on turf, followed by back-to-back Grade 2 wins on the Santa Anita synthetic in the San Pasqual and Strub Stakes.

Neither win was visually appealing. So what?

Cowboy Cal is a course specialist. He wins races - 6 for 11 overall. He does not win by far, but synthetic surfaces sometimes bring them all together. Cowboy Cal, proven at the distance versus Grade 1 company, should be sitting alone in second and would be first over if Matto Mondo fades.

But ultimately, the Big Cap boils down to brilliant speed versus grinding class.

And based on the recent unbiased track profile, the choice is easy. A lone front-runner with Grade 1 class is supposed to be long gone.

The 2009 Santa Anita Handicap can be a parade, with Matto Mondo and Cowboy Cal running one-two all the way around the track.