01/12/2007 12:00AM

No big guns, but El Encino still appeals

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PHOENIX - It's an unusual renewal of the Grade 2 El Encino at Santa Anita on Sunday, mainly because of who isn't going. Four fillies who at one time seemed headed to the race and would have been among the favorites - the Grade 1 La Brea one-two-three finishers, Downthedustyroad, Squallacious, and Balance, as well as the Grade 2 Bayakoa winner Foxysox - are passing the race for one reason or another.

But while the star power may be down in this edition of the El Encino, a 1 1/16-mile race for 4-year-old fillies, there are wagering opportunities.

The most interesting entrant may be the Bobby Frankel-trained Cantabria, who is owned by Juddmonte Farms. Cantabria did some good work in England the last couple seasons and made a super impression at Hollywood on Dec. 6, when she romped on the Cushion Track over first-level allowance foes.

Preciousness is an intriguing shipper who has rattled off three straight big wins at Remington Park and Sam Houston. And Wonder Lady Anne L is the class of the field, having won the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks in the mud at Belmont last summer and having been competitive in other big races. She has not run since August.

But the edge may go to another Frankel trainee: Sugar Shake. A daughter of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Awesome Again, Sugar Shake has been off for a couple of months after a superb second-level allowance win at Churchill Downs Nov. 17. She could be ready to play while the cats are away.

Too much of a good thing?

My first reaction upon hearing that the Breeders' Cup has added three races and a second day of top-shelf racing was delight. But it does give cause for pause, because the new races might affect some of the established ones.

For example, while many have longed for a race like the new BC Dirt Mile, it could steal contenders from the BC Sprint and even BC Classic. I doubt very much it will have an effect on the BC Mile, because the races are run on different surfaces.

And while the new BC Juvenile Turf is intriguing, it could rob the Juvenile of horses. A sprint for females sounds good, but fillies and mares have added flavor to past runnings and three have won (Very Subtle, Desert Stormer, Safely Kept). Will the Sprint be the same now that females have their own race?

We don't yet know the answers to these questions, but they are worth posing and worth keeping tabs on. I can understand that the Breeders' Cup must do everything it can to protect its product and enhance its stature, but it has to be careful not to dilute the event. Look what has happened to college football: We just got through a month of a ridiculous 32 bowl games, many of them meaningless. When you're left with a diluted product, nobody's happy.

Jazil nicely set up for 2007 campaign

I know there are those who were disappointed in Jazil's comeback race at Aqueduct last week, but I was not among them. This was so obviously a prep, a stepping-stone to the season.

Jazil was not some fluky winner of the Belmont. He had already run big in the Wood and the Kentucky Derby, where his rallying fourth got lost in Barbaro's brilliance. Is he a Barbaro, a Bernardini, or a Discreet Cat? Of course not. But he can be a force in the division, and he gives Kiaran McLaughlin all sorts of options with likely Horse of the Year Invasor also in the barn.

Should Invasor go here, Jazil can go there. McLaughlin can target the game's biggest events and tag-team the competition, and with no Barbaro or Bernardini on hand, and with Lava Man reportedly eyeing a turf campaign, that leaves Discreet Cat as the main stumbling block for Jazil. But Discreet Cat is going back to Dubai for the World Cup, and he probably won't dance all the dances.

In other words, while 2006 was a big year for McLaughlin, rider Fernando Jara, and Shadwell Stable, it may just have been a lead-in for an even better 2007.