01/06/2011 4:12PM

Older male division in California still lacks a leader


ARCADIA, Calif. – A handicap division that once was an essential component of winter racing in California wobbles quietly into the New Year on Saturday at Santa Anita.

It is no knock on Aggie Engineer, an improved veteran expected to be favored against a mostly undistinguished field in the 1 1/16-mile San Pasqual Stakes. And though durable Dakota Phone also entered, the older male ranks have gone stale as a group.

“It looks kind of worn out,” trainer Mike Machowsky said. “There is not a lot a depth.”

“It doesn’t look that deep right now,” trainer John Sadler said.

It probably will stay that way until the newly turned 4-year-olds move outside their age group to face older horses.

“Those are going to be the top handicap horses, the 3-year-olds turning 4 – Sidney’s Candy, Twirling Candy, and Caracortado,” Machowsky said.

As trainer and part owner of Caracortado, Machowsky hopes his gelding will step up. An unlucky third in the Grade 1 Malibu on Dec. 26, Caracortado will face The Usual Q.T. and, possibly, Jeranimo in the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Turf on Jan. 29 before venturing into open company.

Machowsky listed subsequent options.

“After that, there’s the Kilroe Mile, the Santa Anita Handicap, Dubai,” he said.

The Kilroe is a mile on turf, and the Big Cap is 1 1/4 miles on dirt. Both are Grade 1 stakes to be run March 5. The $10 million Dubai World Cup is March 26.

Sadler trains Sidney’s Candy and Twirling Candy, and both are scheduled for their second start of winter in Grade 2 races for 4-year-olds. Sidney’s Candy runs in the San Fernando on Jan. 15; Twirling Candy runs in the Strub on Feb. 5. Beyond that, there are no definite plans.

“We’re going to take our time,” Sadler said. “It’s a long year.”

Besides, Sadler already added reinforcement. Recognizing the absence of main-track older males out West, he went shopping in Florida.

“What I was looking for was exactly that – dirt horses that can run a distance,” he said.

He found a good one in Gladding, a six-start maiden before an Oct. 22 race at Calder. It was his first route on a fast dirt track, and he scored a 17 1/4-length win, earning a 100 Beyer. Gladding ran back three weeks later on turf at Calder and ran poorly, after which Sadler bought him for the CRK Stable owned by Lee Searing.

“I liked his pedigree,” Sadler said. “He’s by Sarava, and I was looking for a horse for long distances on the dirt.”

Gladding made his California debut for Sadler in a one-mile race Dec. 29. He pressed a fast pace and won by 2 1/4 lengths with another good Beyer, a 99.

“I think he’ll run all day, too,” Sadler said.

Gladding will be considered for the Strub and Big Cap. The question is, is that good?

The question faces many older males, including long-sidelined Misremembered. A 5-year-old, Misremembered has not started since winning the Big Cap one year ago. He recently resumed training, and his expected target is Dubai.

Others are in limbo. Jeranimo, 5, was mentioned as a possible Big Cap starter after he won the Grade 2 San Gabriel on turf Dec. 27 for trainer Mike Pender. However, Jeranimo is the focus of a pending sale and trainer change. His status is undetermined.

If he eventually runs on the new Santa Anita track, Jeranimo will offer a revealing study in the efficiency of turf-synthetic runners moving to dirt − whether a slow-early/fast-late running style can be as effective on a dirt surface generally kind to speed.

As for the San Pasqual field, the most accomplished horse in the lineup faces a difficult task. Dakota Phone has won six races and $1,279,810; his earnings exceed the combined total of the other five entrants.

The problem for Dakota Phone is that his deep-closing style is compromised by an apparent lack of pace. Ryehill Dreamer scratched from a turf allowance race Friday to run instead in the San Pasqual, and he could apply token pressure.

“It looks like he likes the dirt,” said Julio Canani, who trains Ryehill Dreamer.

Canani said one reason he was willing to try the San Pasqual was the possible vulnerability of Dakota Phone. Yet Dakota Phone is not the horse to beat. Notwithstanding pace pressure from Ryehill Dreamer or even Red Door Drive, the horse to beat in the San Pasqual is Aggie Engineer.

A 6-year-old gelding, he does not require the lead to win. He worked well last weekend over the Santa Anita dirt surface and won his last two starts with triple-digit Beyer Figures.

Finally, in a winter handicap division that is adrift, Aggie Engineer might simply be the best horse ready to make noise against an otherwise quiet group.