02/16/2008 12:00AM

O'Neill says Notional is ready for comeback


ARCADIA, Calif. - Notional starts from scratch Sunday at Santa Anita in the $75,000 Daytona Handicap, his first race since suffering a fractured cannon bone only weeks before the 2007 Kentucky Derby.

Doug O'Neill trains Notional, a 4-year-old who faces a simple question Sunday in the 6 1/2-furlong turf race. Is he the same horse that earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure in his splashy debut at age 2 and later won two graded stakes at age 3? Exercise rider Sal Santiago told O'Neill not to worry.

"Sal has been getting on [Notional] since before he ran, and said he's doing as good now as he's ever done," O'Neill said. "The last few weeks, he's really done well. His works have been impressive."

Owned by J. Paul Reddam, Notional has won 3 races and $503,200 from 6 starts, including the Grade 2 San Rafael at Santa Anita and Gradeo3 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. He was second in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park last March 31. The leg injury showed up April 14 after a routine gallop at Keeneland.

A screw was inserted in Notional's lower cannon bone, which O'Neill said was later removed, and he spent the next few months recuperating in central California at Magali Farms. Notional had his first three-furlong breeze Dec. 17 at Hollywood, and has not missed a beat since.

"He's ready," O'Neill said. "This looks like a live spot."

Garrett Gomez rides Notional, whose high-figure debut, turf-friendly pedigree (by In Excess), and proven class makes him the logical favorite under top weight of 120 pounds.

Notional is not the only 4-year-old stakes winner in the field, however. Desert Code drops from the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes into a non-graded stakes while returning to his favorite course. Desert Code is 2 for 2 down the hill including the Grade 3 Baldwin Stakes. Richard Migliore rides Desert Code, who has won 4 of 12 starts and $271,529 for trainer David Hofmans.

Night Chapter won the 2007 Daytona under Brice Blanc, who is reunited Sunday with the 7-year-old. Owned by Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre and trainer Bobby Frankel, Night Chapter has been freshened since a flat third-place finish in a similar spot Dec. 31.

Other starters include Stoneside, a well-regarded import last summer whose three-start U.S. campaign has been a bust. He adds blinkers and goes route to sprint. Battle Won dead-heated for victory in a third-level optional claimer last out on the hill.