03/02/2010 12:00AM

Not much pretty except the results

Benoit & Associates
St Trinians wins the Paseana Handicap in January as a prelude to her victory in the Santa Maria last month. The Big Cap against males is next.

ARCADIA, Calif. - What on Earth is this?

That was the sort of thought that went through trainer Mike Mitchell's mind when St Trinians arrived at his barn in early 2009. The filly from England had a promising race record, and did not cost much, but had terribly crooked legs, the kind that scare a veteran trainer such as Mitchell.

When he finally saw her gallop, Mitchell was aghast.

"Her hind legs go to the right and her front legs go to the left," he said.

The action is not pretty, but it sure does work. St Trinians has won her first four starts in the United States, including the Grade 2 Santa Maria Handicap at Santa Anita last month. Mitchell is so confident in St Trinians's ability that she will start in Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap in an attempt to become the first female to win the historic race. To win the Grade 1 race at 1 1/4 miles, she must beat a full field of males.

Describing her conformation, Mitchell describes St Trinians as crooked from "everywhere from the knees down."

"Everyone on top of her says she feels fine," he said. "She wings her legs."

The awkward motion was first on display in this country last March, when St Trinians won an optional claimer by four lengths. A sore ankle kept her sidelined until December, but St Trinians has since won three consecutive races - an allowance race at Hollywood Park in December, the Paseana Handicap at Santa Anita in January, and the Santa Maria Handicap on Feb. 13.

"There is nothing like time in the sunshine and getting them away from the racetrack," Mitchell said of the benefit of the 2009 layoff.

In the Santa Maria over 1 1/16 miles, St Trinians outfinished Life Is Sweet, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic last November by 1 3/4 lengths. Even though St Trinians was favored, Mitchell was somewhat surprised by the win.

"I thought I'd have to be six lengths in front of Life Is Sweet," he said. "I didn't know if I could beat her turn of foot, but my filly had a turn of foot, too."

Mitchell and owners Dan Capen and Laura Chavers could have opted to stay within the female division this month, and point St Trinians for the $250,000 Santa Margarita Handicap on March 13, which will draw the undefeated two-time champion Zenyatta in her first start since the Breeders' Cup Classic last November.

The higher prize money in the Big Cap, and the distance, makes it more appealing to Mitchell.

"If it were the only spot, I'd run against Zenyatta, and I think I could give her a run for the money," Mitchell said. "If there is a piece of history being the first to beat Zenyatta or the first to win the Santa Anita handicap with a female, both would be fine.

"I don't think it's a question if she's that good, it's a matter of whether she'll handle the distance. I'm running for a half-million more."

St Trinians was purchased in the fall of 2008 in England through bloodstock agent and Santa Anita-based trainer Jamie Lloyd, who had been scouting for horses for Capen.

"Jamie said she's one tough mare and she's crooked," Mitchell recalled.

Between the purchase price and transport to California, "we had about $85,000 in her," Mitchell said. St Trinians has earned $192,420 for Capen and Chavers this year.

In England, St Trinians won 3 of 7 starts, with all the victories coming against males in races on the all-weather track at Wolverhampton. She made her stakes debut in the Paseana, and her graded stakes debut in the Santa Maria.

St Trinians will be the 42nd female to start in the Big Cap, which will be run for the 73rd time. Three females have finished second - Next Move in 1951, Gamely in 1969, and Island Fashion in 2004.

"I'm trying not to get too excited and overthink it," said Capen, who also owns Ever a Friend, a starter in Saturday's Frank Kilroe Mile. "It's a dream race, like a Breeders' Cup race would be. I was thinking she was going to stay with the gals, but Mike Mitchell, who I have the ultimate confidence in, thinks that's the way to go."

Capen, 60, is an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles who specializes in spines. He also has worked with jockeys, helping them recover from injuries. Mitchell recalls meeting Capen socially in the 1990s and then visiting the doctor for a sore knee before training for him.

On Saturday, they will be trying to win the Santa Anita Handicap with a mare who has a funny way of traveling.

"We're not going for style points," Capen said. "We're going to the wire first."