01/23/2004 12:00AM

Purse cut appears imminent

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita will cut purses in the near future because business did not meet expectations during the first month of the winter-spring meeting, according to two top racing officials.

Track officials and executives with the Thoroughbred Owners of California said they plan to meet in coming days to discuss a purse cut. The amount of the purse cut has not been determined, but it is expected to affect overnight purses and stakes.

Track president Jack Liebau said it was uncertain "how severe it will be." When asked if purses would be cut, he replied, "I think so. We continue to review it. Handle out of state has been disappointing, but we've done pretty well ontrack."

There has been concern in recent weeks that purses would be cut after out-of-state handle fell following the start of the meeting Dec. 26.

"I think there will be a purse cut," said Drew Couto, the executive director of the TOC. "We were sensitive from the start, but we were more conservative than the track was."

Santa Anita is owned by Magna Entertainment, which also owns Gulfstream Park, near Miami. Both tracks have experienced a drop in nationwide handle because of a Magna policy that pulled its signal from a majority of account wagering services in the United States.

By doing so, Magna has encouraged customers to open accounts with its account wagering service, XpressBet. Some horseplayers have reacted by boycotting Magna tracks.

A purse cut at Santa Anita would mark the third consecutive Southern California meeting to slash purses. Purses were cut by 10 percent for seven of the final eight days of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting in late October and early November after track officials cited lower than expected business. The cut also included the elimination of the $200,000 Las Palmas Handicap on Nov. 8.

Hollywood Park reduced purses by 8 percent for the final three weeks of its six-week fall meeting, citing an overpayment from 2002. Conversely, Del Mar and Fairplex Park made a retroactive purse increase last month, after business exceeded expectations at the 2003 meetings at those tracks.

A reduction in overnight purses and stakes is a policy of the TOC, which, by law, must approve changes to purses at California tracks.

"It's been a long-term policy that you adjust both," Couto said.

Couto said some graded stakes cannot be altered since they must meet minimum purse requirements for stakes set forth by the American Graded Stakes committee, including $250,000 for Grade 1 stakes.

Congaree, 'Pleasantly' set for debut

Congaree, one of the top handicap horses of 2003, and Pleasantly Perfect, the upset winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic in October, will make their 2004 debuts in the $250,000 San Antonio Handicap on Saturday.

They will not have many opponents in the Grade 2 race over 1 1/8 miles. As of Friday, the other probables were Fleetstreet Dancer, the winner of the Japan Cup Dirt in November; and Star Cross, the winner of the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park in December.

Congaree was under consideration for the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 7, and still could pass the San Antonio, trainer Bob Baffert said. Baffert also said a decision would be made after weights are issued Tuesday.

Friday, Congaree worked six furlongs in 1:11.80, the fastest of 23 recorded works at the distance.

Jerry Bailey has been booked to ride Congaree, Baffert said.

The weekend's other major race is the $150,000 Palos Verdes Handicap over six furlongs. Bluesthestandard, Boston Common, Marino Marini, Our New Recruit, and Tough Game are probables.

Halfbridled still on for Las Virgenes

Halfbridled, who is expected to be named champion 2-year-old filly at Monday's Eclipse Award ceremony in Florida, has coughed in recent days, but trainer Richard Mandella said he is "not yet" concerned about her participation in the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes on Feb. 15.

"She's coughed a few days, just enough to scare us," Mandella said. "We'll work her on Wednesday, but we've given her a few extra days."

Stakes debut next for Spellbinder

After winning a $54,880 optional claimer in Friday's fourth race, Spellbinder, an improving 3-year-old trained by Mandella, is likely to make his stakes debut in his next start.

Ridden by Alex Solis, Spellbinder led throughout, holding off Gold Bankers Gold to win by three-quarters of a length. Dwango, the 3-5 favorite, finished third; Bornwithit finished fourth.

Spellbinder ($5.80) set slow fractions of 23.51 and 47.51 and finished a mile in 1:36.40.

Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Spellbinder won a one-mile maiden race Dec. 29 from a stalking position. Mandella was encouraged by the way Spellbinder fought back when challenged in early stretch of Friday's race.

"He showed a lot of courage," Mandella said. "It was a little different than anything we've done with him in the morning or in races. But the race came up funny. It looked like maybe nobody wanted to go to the lead."

Mandella said the $200,000 San Rafael Stakes over a mile March 6 "wouldn't be out of the question."

Reforest to Frankel stable

Reforest, an easy winner of a maiden race for sprinters at Turfway Park on Dec. 26, has been privately acquired by Edmund Gann and has joined trainer Bobby Frankel.

Frankel said Reforest, a 3-year-old Forestry filly, arrived at his stable earlier this week. Previously owned by Gaines-Gentry Thoroughbreds and Chris Hall, Reforest beat maidens by 11 3/4 lengths Dec. 26, finishing 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.77. She was previously trained by Andrew McKeever.

Frankel did not mention any potential races for Reforest, who has made two career starts.

Sarava shakes off rust in comeback

Sarava, the 2002 Belmont Stakes winner, finished ninth in a one-mile allowance race on turf Thursday, his first start since returning to training following a severe bout with colic last summer.

"He needed that race," Baffert said. "We'll look for something on the dirt for him."

The $65,000 optional claimer was won by Golden Dragon, who has won two of his last three starts for Cobra Farm and trainer Mike Puype. Golden Dragon finished in a mile in a sharp 1:32.88.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee