02/01/2008 1:00AM

San Antonio could create new leader


ARCADIA, Calif. - Repairs begin Sunday on two key elements of winter racing at Santa Anita - the main track and the handicap division.

Santa Anita begins refurbishment of its racing surface late Sunday, a few hours after nine older horses try to revitalize the division in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap.

Student Council is the only Grade 1 winner and an easy target for cynics. His career-high Beyer Speed Figure is a mere 99, which he earned winning the Pacific Classic last summer at Del Mar. Student Council's trainer, Vladimir Cerin, will let others worry about the numbers.

"Some really good horses have finished behind him, and ran slower times," Cerin said.

In fact, Student Council last summer defeated two good horses that will try again in the San Antonio - Awesome Gem and Big Booster.

Student Council, Awesome Gem, and Big Booster are all racing for the first time in 2008, and the trainers of all three said they are using the 1 1/8-mile, $250,000 San Antonio to prep for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on March 1. So, do they need a start?

Cerin said Student Council "is fit enough, and he's trained better than ever."

Richard Migliore rides the 6-year-old Student Council, whose pressing style might give him a tactical edge over Awesome Gem and Big Booster. But the San Antonio is far from a two-horse race.

The field includes rapidly improving Zappa and likely pacesetter Well Armed, one-two finishers Jan. 12 in the Grade 2 San Pasqual; Sweetnorthernsaint, a Grade 2 winner who was seventh as the 2006 Kentucky Derby favorite; Heatseeker; and stablemates Rathor and Racketeer, whose trainer Bobby Frankel noted, "There are no superstars in there."

Awesome Gem will race for the first time since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27. David Flores rides Awesome Gem, who was entered Saturday in a turf stakes. Trainer Craig Dollase said he would scratch Awesome Gem and run him Sunday in the San Antonio. Is Awesome Gem ready off a pattern of only five workouts? Dollase said he believes he is.

"He's always been a 'light' horse; you don't need to do a lot with him," Dollase said, adding that the three-month break "is not going to bother him at all. I wouldn't be surprised if he jumps and runs a big race."

Big Booster last raced four months ago, when he finished third, a length behind Tiago and Awesome Gem, in the Grade 1 Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita. His trainer, Mike Mitchell, said Big Booster is fit, but expressed concern that the racing surface is not conducive to his closing style. Michael Baze rides.

"[Big Booster] is training great; I couldn't have him doing any better, but will he like the track?" Mitchell said. "The way this track is, it seems like you can't drop too far out of it and make up ground."

Two-turn closers can make up ground at Santa Anita only if the pace is severe. Sunday, the pace scenario depends on Well Armed and Sweetnorthernsaint. Well Armed wasted a soft trip setting the pace in the 1 1/16-mile San Pasqual, which was his first race since getting sick and missing a start.

Zappa sprang a 13-1 upset in the San Pasqual, and with a current-racing edge over the comebackers, he might win right back. John Sadler trains the former $20,000 claimer, who has won 11 of his last 19 starts.

Frankel starters Racketeer and Rathor both have a shot. Racketeer finished a flat fifth in the San Pasqual after he fell too far off the pace and was caught wide behind slow fractions.

"I think he's going to run good," Frankel said.

Rathor is moving from turf to synthetic for his second start back, and his back form is solid. He defeated Student Council when they met last April on Polytrack at Keeneland. But even Frankel admits that wet weather has messed up his training schedule.

"I haven't breezed in two weeks, and [Thursday] they went five-eighths," he said. "It's frustrating."