04/02/2008 11:00PM

Reunion time for old workmates

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - The top sprinters Surf Cat and El Roblar have long gone separate ways. But once upon a time they were virtual roommates. When they meet Saturday for the first time in a race, they can settle a long-simmering question - which horse is better?

Surf Cat and El Roblar lead the field for the Grade 2, 6 1/2-furlong Potrero Grande Handicap on Saturday, race 4 on an outstanding 11-race Santa Anita Derby card. Greg's Gold, Johnny Eves, Peace Chant, and Sailors Sunset also entered the Potrero Grande.

Three others in the $200,000 race have Bruce Headley backgrounds: Surf Cat, El Roblar, and Peace Chant. Headley was the original trainer of all three, and he has won the race six times.

Headley originally purchased the 6-year-olds Surf Cat and El Roblar, and the 5-year-old Peace Chant. Headley broke all three in his backyard ranch. A split between Headley and owner Jess Jackson led to El Roblar and Peace Chant transferring to trainer Richard Mandella.

"I'm proud I picked all three, and proud they were broken in my backyard," Headley said. And even now, Headley remains curious - is Surf Cat better than El Roblar, or is it vice-versa?

Surf Cat and El Roblar were workmates before either started, so close in ability that Headley was unable to distinguish which had more talent. El Roblar started once for Headley before transferring to Mandella; he has won 5 of 12 races and $299,946.

Surf Cat has won 8 of 16 races and $795,420 for Headley. And while Surf Cat benefits from a recent start - he won the Grade 2 San Carlos on Feb. 16 - El Roblar has been making noise in the morning like he means business for his first start since June 9.

El Roblar chipped an ankle last summer; Mandella said he recovered well.

"He's come back awesome, and I would think he'd run his brains out first time," Mandella said.

El Roblar worked five furlongs Monday in 57.40 seconds, breezing, faster than Mandella had intended.

"I thought he might go in a minute," said Mandella, who added the fast work might be a sign the horse is doing good.

Richard Migliore rides El Roblar, while Michael Baze rides Peace Chant for Mandella and Jackson.

Peace Chant is making his second start back after an injury, and should improve. On pure form however, El Roblar is a better horse.

Alex Solis rides Surf Cat for the 15th straight time, a string that includes 8 wins and 5 graded stakes victories. Owned by Headley's wife, Aase, and Marsha Naify, Surf Cat drew post 5 of six and should get a beneficial pace scenario with front-runners Sailors Sunset, Peace Chant, and Greg's Gold in the race.

Since winning the San Carlos, Headley said, Surf Cat "has done fabulous."

"He has never missed a work, never missed a beat," Headley said.

Greg's Gold benefits from the shorter distance after tiring in the seven-furlong San Carlos.

Providencia: Hard to look past Sweeter Still

A month after Sweeter Still ran the best race of her young career in winning the China Doll Stakes at Santa Anita on March 1, little has changed for the 3-year-old filly.

"She's doing as good as she was then," trainer Jeff Mullins said.

That is as close as Mullins is willing to go regarding a prediction for the $150,000 Providencia Stakes on Saturday. But the trainer's statement reflects ample confidence about Sweeter Still's chances in the Grade 2 race over a mile on turf, her fifth start.

An Irish-bred, Sweeter Still is unbeaten in two starts this year, including a maiden race on turf here in January. She will be favored in the Providencia, which has drawn a field of 10 3-year-old fillies.

"She's a very intelligent filly," Mullins said.

Mullins admits that he has been impressed with Sweeter Still's development, which began after she finished ninth in the Grade 3 Miesque Stakes at Hollywood Park last November in her United States debut.

Mullins said the poor race was a result of running her too soon after she arrived from Europe.

"She looked like a Shetland pony when she arrived," he said.

In the China Doll, Sweeter Still stalked the pace, fought for the lead in early stretch, and won by a length over Carnival Queen, a starter in the Providencia. Gorgeous Goose, third as the beaten favorite in the China Doll, also starts in the Providencia.

Typical of a turf race for 3-year-old fillies in Southern California, the race has a European influence. Of the 10 entrants, four started their careers in Europe, including Missit, who was second in the Group 2 Rockfel Stakes at Newmarket, England, last October.

Missit had a busy October. She ran three times in a span of 22 days, including a second in a listed stakes on Oct. 27, her most recent start. Trained by Ben Cecil for Three Chimneys Racing, Missit is the only filly in the field who has placed in a graded stakes. Cecil hopes she can develop into a graded stakes winner in this country.

"You never know first time out, but she's trained really nicely," he said. "I think she's got enough class that she can be competitive in this race. I think she was one of the top five or six 2-year-old fillies in England last year."

How that translates to racing in the U.S. will be better known on Saturday.

- Steve Andersen