04/18/2007 11:00PM

Pace lone concern for closer On the Acorn

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Really, On the Acorn should not be in the Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita on Sunday.

Claimed for $40,000 last November, his presence in a graded stakes such as the $200,000 San Juan seems improbable, especially after he returned to finish ninth against $50,000 claimers last December.

But a shift to Santa Anita and a move to turf marathons has energized the 6-year-old gelding, who enters the San Juan as a logical contender. With a little luck, On the Acorn could have won the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap in February. He finished third after being carried wide by a rival through the stretch. He was later promoted to second because of the trouble.

On the Acorn has come so far, so soon that trainer Mike Mitchell is not worried whether he fits in the San Juan; he is more worried about race strategy. Mitchell is concerned that Sweet Return, trained by Ron McAnally, could have an uncontested lead, which would hamper On the Acorn's late kick in the race, run over about 1 3/4 miles on turf.

"You'd like someone to chase McAnally's horse," Mitchell said. "Any kind of easy lead, and he gets very brave. I would rather have someone next to him or collar him."

On the Acorn has earned $98,400 this year for the six-man partnership of Indizguys Stable.

The group includes Santa Anita publicist Jack Disney and his brother Doug; Buck Rodgers, the former manager of the Montreal Expos and California Angels; insurance executive Fred Krueger; Ross Newhan, a baseball writer for the Los Angeles Times; and Paul Salata, a former football player with USC and San Francisco 49ers.

It is Salata who founded Irrelevant Week in Newport Beach, Calif., an annual weekend of charity events honoring the final player selected in the NFL draft.

The group would receive $120,000 if On the Acorn wins the San Juan.

"I think the extra distance is good for him," Mitchell said. "He's training great."

As of Thursday, there were seven probable starters for the San Juan - Boule d'Or, Embossed, Fitz Flag, Icy Ridge, On the Acorn, One Off, and Sweet Return. A.P. Excellent, Church Service, and Phar to Win, who were invited, were not entered, racing officials said.

Post positions were scheduled to be drawn on Thursday evening, when officials with the Victoria Racing Club of Melbourne, Australia, were scheduled to issue an invitation to the San Juan Capistrano winner to start in the Melbourne Cup in November.

Riders test Pro-Ride surface

Jockeys Aaron Gryder and Richard Migliore returned from Australia on Wednesday following a two-day tour to exercise horses on a Pro-Ride synthetic surface, which is being considered for installation at Santa Anita.

Both Gryder and Migliore spoke favorably of Pro-Ride, one of four surfaces being considered at Santa Anita. The jockeys exercised horses at Rosehills and Gosford Park training tracks in the Sydney area. Both tracks have the Pro-Ride surface.

Tuesday at Rosehills, Gryder and Migliore exercised six horses, some of which jogged and galloped and others that breezed in slow times. Wednesday, at Gosford Park, they worked a few horses out of the gate and then "set them down" for more vigorous exercise, Gryder said.

Santa Anita is expected to make an announcement by the end of April as to which surface will be installed this summer, Charles said. The candidates are Cushion Track, Polytrack, Pro Ride, and Tapeta. Cushion Track is in place at Hollywood Park, and Tapeta will be installed later this year at Golden Gate, which like Santa Anita is owned by Magna Entertainment.

"I wouldn't have a problem if Santa Anita put Cushion [Track] or that track in," Migliore said of Pro-Ride. "I like both of them."

Gryder said that at the jockeys' suggestion Gosford Park fluffed up the Pro-Ride to give it greater cushion.

"They really run over the top of it, instead of going into it," Gryder said. "It is so different than Polytrack, Cushion Track, and Tapeta."

City council approves mall plan

The Arcadia, Calif., city council approved a plan for an outdoor shopping mall in what is now the Santa Anita parking lot on Tuesday, but the concept faces opposition from neighborhood groups and a rival shopping mall adjacent to the track.

The Shops at Santa Anita would cover 825,000 square feet and would be modeled after The Grove, a popular shopping center that was rebuilt in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles earlier this year.

Last fall, commercial developer Rick Caruso said the Santa Anita project would not open until 2011.

The approval of the project is expected to accelerate Santa Anita's plan to redevelop its aging barn area, because if the shopping center is built it could affect a track entrance near the backstretch. At Thursday's California Horse Racing Board meeting, Santa Anita president Ron Charles told commissioners that the track will be moving forward with plans to replace 10 barns.

The barn area improvement project is expected to take three to four years, Charles said. Stable area capacity would be reduced from 1,900 stalls to 1,700 stalls, but, Charles said, "we will be looking at other options" to replace those stalls.