02/03/2009 12:00AM

O'Neill ready for weekend

Benoit & Associates
Slew's Tiznow, winning the War Chant, will face Cowboy Cal and Gio Ponti in the Strub.

ARCADIA, Calif. - In a season without a standout among California's older horses, trainer Doug O'Neill may have an advantage: He has numbers on his side.

This weekend, O'Neill has starters in the two major stakes for older horses at Santa Anita - Slew's Tiznow in Saturday's $250,000 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds and Informed in Sunday's $200,000 San Antonio Handicap. Both races are run over 1 1/8 miles and are preps for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7.

Being considered for a race like the Big Cap seemed improbable for either horse last summer. Slew's Tiznow was returning from a lengthy layoff, and Informed had just won an allowance race at Del Mar.

Slew's Tiznow, 4, has since won two stakes - the El Cajon at Del Mar in September and the War Chant at Hollywood Park in November. Conversely, he was 10th in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in October and a fourth as the 9-5 favorite in the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes here on Jan. 19.

O'Neill blamed the San Fernando loss on a troubled, wide trip.

"A cleaner trip will make it easier on him," he said. "He's a long, wide-bodied horse. You can see the specialness of him."

Slew's Tiznow is part of an expected large field in the Strub. The leading contenders are Cowboy Cal, the winner of the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 10, and Gio Ponti, the winner of the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort Stakes on Dec. 26, his first start on a synthetic main track.

Informed, 5, finished second by a nose to Cowboy Cal in the San Pasqual. He rallied from sixth in a field of nine to just miss despite being pushed to the outside in deep stretch. The stewards inquired into the stretch run between the first two finishers but did not change the order of finish.

The San Pasqual was Informed's second start in a stakes, and his best finish in such a race. It gave O'Neill and his team the hope that Informed can develop into a stakes winner this year.

"He was meant to be a nice horse," said Leandro Mora, O'Neill's assistant. "He just needed some time, I guess."

In the Grade 2 San Antonio, Informed must beat Champs Elysees, who won the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup in December and was third in the 2008 Santa Anita Handicap, and Tiago, who was third in the Breeders' Cup Classic last October.

Blue Exit and Dakota Phone, 4-year-old trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, are candidates for either stakes.

Spring preview on Saturday

There are two major stakes for 3-year-olds on Saturday with major implications for the spring classics.

Pioneerof the Nile, the leading 3-year-old in California, will make his 2009 debut in the $200,000 Robert Lewis Stakes over 1 1/16 miles. Trained by Bob Baffert, Pioneerof the Nile worked five furlongs in 59.40 seconds on Sunday, the fourth-fastest of 58 recorded works at the distance.

Pioneerof the Nile will be favored in a small field also expected to include Bittel Road, I Want Revenge, Papa Clem, Oil Man, and Shafted.

Stardom Bound, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2008, makes her 3-year-old debut and first start for trainer Bobby Frankel in Saturday's $300,000 Las Virgenes Stakes, a Grade 1 over a mile. She is part of a probable field of eight, including Century Park, Dave's Revenge, Haka, Nan, Navigator, Pinkarella, and Saucey Evening.

Ventura's future lies on turf, synthetics

Ventura, who won Saturday's Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap, is likely to run on synthetic tracks and turf courses this year.

After Ventura won the Santa Monica, trainer Bobby Frankel said she will be pointed for the Grade 1 Madison Stakes over seven furlongs on the Polytrack at Keeneland on April 9. Ventura won the same race last year when it was listed as a Grade 2.

"From there, I might have to put her back on the grass," he said.

Such a move should not pose a problem. Last year on turf, Ventura won the Grade 1 Just a Game Stakes at Belmont Park and was second in the Grade 2 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park and Grade 1 Woodbine Mile.

Last fall, she was a convincing four-length winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint here on the Pro-Ride synthetic surface. The same race in November is a long-term goal for this year.

Owned by Juddmonte Farms, Ventura has won 8 of 16 starts and $1,539,470.

Mr. Chairman has surgery

Mr. Chairman, the winner of the $250,000 California Cup Classic last October, sustained an ankle injury in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf on Jan. 24, O'Neill said.

Mr. Chairman underwent surgery last week to have two stabilizing screws inserted in his left hind ankle, O'Neill said.

"He should come back and make a full recovery," O'Neill said.

Owned by Great Friends Stable, Mr. Chairman, 6, finished sixth in the Sunshine Millions Turf. A gelding, Mr. Chairman has won 5 of 15 starts and $347,556. He won four races last year, and was fifth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup, his first start at that level.

Rail Trip looking stakes-ready

Rail Trip remained unbeaten after three starts with an easy win by 5 1/2 lengths in an optional claimer over 1 1/16 miles on Friday.

The victory did little to answer the extent of his ability. Rail Trip has yet to be tested, winning his starts by a combined 12 1/2 lengths. He won two sprints at Hollywood Park in the fall by 3 1/2 lengths each.

Trainer Ron Ellis and owners Mace and Samantha Siegel have yet to decide on a springtime plan for Rail Trip, but a stakes race is almost certain to be his next start. One option is the $70,000 Santana Mile Stakes on April 4, though the race is farther away than Ellis would prefer.

On Friday, Rail Trip led from the start, holding a one-length advantage on the backstretch. The other eight runners never got closer.

"He's getting more confidence," Ellis said. "He looked as good as he did going short."

A 4-year-old gelding, Rail Trip has earned $78,600.