05/29/2008 12:00AM

New setting, surface as rivalry resumes

Benoit & Associates
Heatseeker (above) will be rematched with Tiago in Saturday's Grade 2 Californian.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - When Heatseeker won the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park last December, he was a 30-1 longshot winning the first stakes of his career.

When he walks onto the same Cushion Track for Saturday's $250,000 Californian Stakes, Heatseeker will probably be favored as one of the nation's top older horses.

Winning the Grade 2 Californian Stakes will not be easy for the 5-year-old Heatseeker. His main rival will be Tiago, who edged Heatseeker by a head in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap in Arkansas on April 5, the most recent start for both horses.

Since the Oaklawn Handicap, Heatseeker has thrived, working quickly over recent weeks, including seven furlongs in 1:23.80 on May 18 and five furlongs in 58.60 seconds last Sunday. The pattern reminds Dan Ward, assistant trainer to Jerry Hollendorfer, of the way that Heatseeker exercised in the weeks leading to the Native Diver.

The eight-week gap since the Oaklawn Handicap has refreshed Heatseeker, who made three starts over the synthetic surface at Santa Anita during the winter meeting. Hollendorfer considers the Californian as a prep for the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on June 28, Ward said. For the rest of the year, Heatseeker is expected to stay in California, racing exclusively on synthetic tracks.

"Sometimes you have to take a break," Ward said. "This was the perfect time for a break."

The Oaklawn Handicap, run on dirt, will be focal point for handicappers deciphering the Californian. Tiago, carrying 117 pounds, rallied from sixth to finish a head in front of Heatseeker, who carried 119 pounds.

"The race at Oaklawn Park proved he's not a synthetic specialist," Ward said of Heatseeker. "He was four wide and the winner was on the rail. It was a good race."

The weights are different for the Californian, which is run over 1 1/8 miles, the same distance as the Oaklawn Handicap. Because the Californian is an allowance stakes, with weights determined by past accomplishments, Tiago will carry 126 pounds, with Heatseeker carrying 122 pounds.

The field also includes Surf Cat, who won the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap here on April 26; Albertus Maximus, who will set the pace; and Shamdinan, best known for finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Turf last fall.

Heatseeker, owned by William de Burgh, has been consistent.

Earlier this year, he won the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap over 1 1/4 miles at Santa Anita, which just happens to be the same course and distance as the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 25.

"It's a good year to like Santa Anita," Ward said.

Tiago was fourth in the Santa Anita Handicap, beaten four lengths by Heatseeker after a slow start. The performance was surrounded by a second in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes there in February and the win in the Oaklawn Handicap. Tiago also has worked well in recent weeks, including six furlongs in 1:12.60 here last Saturday.

"He's been working like a monster," trainer John Shirreffs said. "There wasn't much separating them at Oaklawn Park. We were fortunate to get the bob."

The small field in the Californian is a concern for Shirreffs, who trains Tiago for breeders Jerry and Ann Moss.

"Weird things happen in small fields," Shirreffs said. "It will probably be bunched up."

Albertus Maximus, seeking his first stakes win, will lead from the outside post. Trained by Gary Mandella, Albertus Maximus won an allowance over 1 1/16 miles by 6 1/4 lengths on April 23.

"It's time to see what we can do," Mandella said earlier this week. "As well as he ran the other day, I wouldn't like to change tactics. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel."

Surf Cat has won 9 of 18 starts, but has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. A 6-year-old trained by Bruce Headley, Surf Cat is trying 1 1/8 miles for the first time since he won the Grade 2 Swaps here in July 2005. The Mervyn LeRoy on April 26 was his sixth stakes win.