01/15/2009 1:00AM

Pace a concern for Sadler's pair


NEW YORK - It's a big day Saturday at Santa Anita as new members of the handicap division and aspiring 3-year-olds of both sexes compete in a graded stakes tripleheader. The feature is the Grade 2, $200,000 San Fernando Stakes, the traditional final prep for next month's Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds. Evita Argentina and Empressive Lady, two

3-year-old fillies who hope to get out from under the brilliant Stardom Bound's shadow this year, are among those in the Grade 2, $150,000 Santa Ynez Stakes. And Square Eddie, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, begins what he hopes is his road to the Kentucky Derby in the Grade 3, $150,000 San Rafael Stakes.

Elsewhere, a pair of $100,000 events, the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector and the Dania Beach stakes, top the card at Gulfstream Park, while it's derby day at Golden Gate, where the headliner is the $100,000 California Derby.

Santa Ynez Stakes

Trainer John Sadler has a strong hand in this race with his duo of Evita Argentina and Alpha Kitten. Evita Argentina's only losses were in races won by Stardom Bound and she scored at this distance in the Moccasin Stakes in her most recent start, while Alpha Kitten, judging from her second in the quickly run Anoakia Stakes two starts back, will appreciate the cutback in distance to a sprint. While either one of these are certainly capable of winning, they both like to come from off the pace and their chances might be compromised by a paucity of early speed in this spot.

Pinkarella might go for the early lead as she did in her good, if surprising, win over a short field in her debut last month. But given the pace situation, I'm expecting a show of early speed from Empressive Lady, and that's a big reason why I like her.

Empressive Lady didn't do much running in her debut last June. But she was so impressive going gate to wire in her maiden win in her second start with blinkers on at Del Mar that she was sent off the favorite against Stardom Bound in the Del Mar Debutante. Burdened with the 12 hole that day, Empressive Lady traded her speed for a stalking approach, which kept her in contention to midstretch before she weakened. She has been freshened since an ugly effort around two turns in the Oak Leaf, but the fact that she is fresh, combined with a very fast bullet work Jan. 9, suggests she is going to be in the game right from the start. And that might well be her preferred style, anyway.

Mr. Prospector Stakes

Even though he has some good efforts on synthetic tracks, Black Seventeen comes in from California, I believe, to get back on dirt. After all, the last time he went from synthetic to dirt he upset the Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes last fall. But the Vosburgh was run on the kind of wet track that Black Seventeen really excels on, and he's not going to get that kind of footing Saturday.

He's So Chic is the play off his two fine seconds at Aqueduct in November. In the first of those, which was his first start in more than three months, He's So Chic finished behind Grand Champion, who has shown signs on several occasions of being a top-notch sprinter. But it was He's So Chic's most recent effort in the Fall Highweight Handicap that was most impressive. He finished strongly after being farther off the pace than usual to be beaten only 1 1/2 lengths by Fabulous Strike, who might be the best sprinter in the nation when healthy, and Fabulous Strike was healthy then and when he came back to win a strong running of the Gravesend Handicap. And yes, I know, Black Seventeen edged Fabulous Strike when he won the Vosburgh, but aside from that race being run on Black Seventeen's favorite type of track, Fabulous Strike was returning from an absence that day.

San Fernando Stakes

Intent is a big question in this race. While I'm not suggesting that every outfit with a horse in this race wouldn't love to win it, there are several horses in here coming off fall freshenings, and I don't think the connections of every one of them are willing to drain the tank Saturday when the goal is the slightly richer and much more prestigious Strub. This is not a consideration with El Gato Malo, who will be making his third start off a layoff here. But El Gato Malo's first two starts back weren't as good as what he showed before he went on hiatus.

I'm taking a flyer on Muny. Muny was dead game leading all the way in the Oak Tree Derby on turf two starts back and led to deep stretch on grass in the Hollywood Derby last time out going a 1 1/4-mile distance that might have been beyond his reach. I think his speed style will play better on Pro Ride, and as he showed when he got his maiden win on Del Mar's Polytrack, he doesn't require the lead to be effective.

How about a couple of quick picks on some other stakes around the country:

* Cincinnati Trophy Stakes at Turfway Park - Emma Darling stumbled badly at the start when third in the Gowell Stakes last time out and still finished ahead of several of her opponents here.

* Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park - Kopitar might simply be too good for these, but I'm intrigued with Duke of Homberg, who caught yielding courses in his two U.S. starts last fall and may want firmer footing.

* Evening Attire Handicap at Aqueduct - Strong comeback win for Barrier Reef two weeks ago, and Brilliant Son could force Barcola into setting the kind of honest pace that would enhance Barrier Reef's late kick.