Updated on 09/15/2011 1:23PM

Reborn as sprinter, Morocco tries Morvich

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Nearly three years after he was bought for $2 million, Morocco has found his niche.

Morocco starts Monday in the $100,000 Morvich Handicap at Santa Anita, a sprint over about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course. The Morvich is the feature race on the closing day of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting.

Since late summer, the 4-year-old Morocco has developed into a promising late-running sprinter with victories on the main track at Del Mar and on Santa Anita's hillside turf course Oct. 12. "He's always had talent, but mentally he's a bit disarranged," trainer Richard Mandella said.

"As impressive as he was the other day - he galloped by those horses - I'm hoping he can do it again."

Morocco's impressive speed makes him a contender in the Grade 3 Morvich, which drew eight runners, including defending champion El Cielo, who will be a strong favorite.

Morocco is making his second start in a stakes, having finished last of 10 in a division of the 2000 Oceanside Stakes at Del Mar. At the time, Mandella thought Morocco would be useful in one-mile races, but a conversation with his son, assistant trainer Gary Mandella, swayed his opinion.

"I was thinking middle distance with him, but my son pointed out maybe he's a come-from-behind sprinter," Mandella said.

Morocco and El Cielo should be well-placed in the Morvich. Neither are front-runners, and they should have plenty of pace in front of them to set up a rally. Islander, second to El Cielo in an allowance race Oct. 5, will contribute to the lead along with Dream Counter, who has not started since last December.

El Cielo is a stalker and will have first run at the leaders, a key point that may enable him to hold off Morocco. A winner of 12 of 18 starts, El Cielo has won eight races on the hillside turf course. "El Cielo is tough, period," Mandella admitted.

Trained by Craig Dollase for a partnership, the 7-year-old El Cielo will be ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr.

King Slayer and Speak in Passing could play a factor. Speak in Passing was second in the Live the Dream Handicap at Del Mar on Sept. 5 and a good second in an allowance race Sept. 28. The Morvich is his first start on the hillside turf course.

King Slayer has won twice on the hillside turf course, but is winless in five starts since he was claimed for $100,000 last March.