02/07/2002 1:00AM

Remember, that was then, this is now


ARCADIA, Calif. - Horseplayers have been slow to recognize the possibility of change this winter at Santa Anita, as illustrated by three recent mounts of Jerry Bailey.

Siphonic was 1-10 in the Santa Catalina on Jan. 19 based on last year's form. He lost. Squirtle Squirt was 4-5 in the Palos Verdes Handicap on Jan. 27 based on last year's form. He lost. Lido Palace was 4-5 in the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 3 based on last year's form, and lost.

While the racing season never really ends, it is obligatory for bettors to be skeptical at the start of a new meet. In racing, last year is ancient history. The expectation of change is an idea that should be embraced, not shunned. Rather than expecting more of the same, bettors might instead expect something altogether new. Skeptics wager against last year's stars until they re-establish form.

It's all 20-20 hindsight, of course. Labamta Babe was the logical second choice in the Santa Catalina; he paid $13.20. Snow Ridge, coming off a sharp win in the El Conejo, paid $19 in the Palos Verdes. Redattore was working a hole in the wind for his comeback in the San Antonio; he paid $25.40.

Now comes the Grade 1 Las Virgenes Sunday, headed by 2001 heroines Habibti and You. They may be superior still, but there always is a potential star in the wings. On Sunday, it might be Spring Meadow, who is jumping from maiden sprint to two-turn Grade 1. Saint Bernadette, the filly Spring Meadow beat by four lengths in her Jan. 6 debut, returned to win impressively. Recent works by Spring Meadow suggest she may be up to the challenge. Spring Meadow does not have to win the Las Virgenes, but neither do last year's stars Habibti or You.

San Fernando form exposed

Was there or was there not a speed bias? There has been a debate whether a genuine bias existed Jan. 12, or if the results of that day's racing should stand on their own merit. At the crux of the issue was the San Fernando Stakes, in which front-runners Western Pride and Orientate finished one-two despite scalding fractions of 44.86 and 1:08.80 in the 1 1/16-mile race.

Their subsequent performances last weekend pretty much settled the argument. Without a speed bias to propel either, Western Pride and Orientate finished seventh and sixth in the Strub. There is future relevance to the San Fernando being exposed as bogus. That is because Western Pride - winner of the Calder and Ohio derbies - is being considered for the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 23, a race in which he would have virtually no chance against world-class competition.

As for Orientate, he is scheduled to return to grass for the Kilroe Mile on March 2. Good luck. Prior to his bias-aided runner-up finish in the San Fernando, Orientate won a minor stakes Dec. 26 under ideal circumstances, loose on the lead setting a walking pace.

Make no mistake about Western Pride and Orientate - they are good horses who will win again. But until they score without being flattered by circumstance, their form will remain under a cloud.

A weak San Antonio

The older handicap division fell to pieces this winter, and remains in tatters. Just because Redattore scored a half-length victory Sunday in the San Antonio Handicap, that does not mean this honest veteran from Brazil is the right horse to lead the U.S. contingent in Dubai. Truth is, the San Antonio will go down as an unusually weak race that does not figure to have significant bearing on the remainder of the season.

Grade 2 horses in California routinely race faster than the 47.77 opening half-mile of the 1 1/8-mile San Antonio. Typically, they go at least three-fifths faster than 1:11.60, the six-furlong time of the San Antonio, in which pressers ran one-two-three. It was a race that means little, except that Richard Mandella - trainer of Redattore - has snapped out of his slump. Meanwhile, horseplayers will have no qualms wagering against any horse exiting the San Antonio, regardless of where they start.

Meet the new boss

The baton has been passed. Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Squirtle Squirt is not California's top sprinter. In his place, Snow Ridge has emerged as fastest in the West. Whatever disagreement existed after Snow Ridge scored a $39.20 upset Jan. 1 in the El Conejo disappeared Jan. 27 when he paid $19 winning the Palos Verdes Handicap by four lengths over Squirtle Squirt. The race, which earned a 118 Beyer, was legitimate.

Quirin-style pace and speed figures earned by Snow Ridge in the 5 1/2-furlong El Conejo were genuine, and were validated in the Palos Verdes. For now, there isn't a horse in California who can keep up with Snow Ridge, and he could be long gone March 3 in the Grade 1 San Carlos Handicap at seven furlongs. There is no reason why he cannot stay the distance.

The only knock on Snow Ridge's Palos Verdes win is that it was was accomplished over a wet surface. No big deal.

The best sprinter in California is trained by Wayne Lukas.