02/05/2008 12:00AM

San Antonio offers several angles


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Sunday's Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita is not an easy race to handicap. Most of the nine horses entered in this 1 1/8-mile event are capable of winning, but all of the contenders also have at least one significant knock against them.

If you enjoy handicapping, you can have a lot of fun with a race like this.

The first thing to notice is that this field isn't particularly fast. Only three of the nine runners entered in the race managed to earn a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure in their most recent start.

The fastest horse last time out is Awesome Gem, who finished a distant third, beaten by 9 1/4 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He received a Beyer Figure of 105 for that effort. That isn't a bad number, but it isn't spectacular, either. Shouldn't a horse have to run faster than that to be a prime contender in a Grade 2 race for older horses that offers a $250,000 purse? By way of comparison, Pyro, the 2-year-old who finished second, beaten by 4 3/4 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, also earned a 105 Beyer.

There are a few significant reasons to look beyond Awesome Gem. First, he has not started since the Classic on Oct. 27. As you might know, horses returning from a layoff since a start in the Breeders' Cup have disappointed frequently at low odds. It is also a concern to see that trainer Craig Dollase shows just 7 percent wins versus 19 percent overall, and a low $0.61 return on investment from a group of 28 starters returning from vacations of two through six months. Awesome Gem might not even start in the race, as he was also entered to run in Saturday's Thunder Road Handicap, a one-mile turf race at Santa Anita.

Student Council won the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar three races ago, then finished second in the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap. Although that seems impressive, those were slow races, and his career-best Beyer is only a 99. He has not started since his eighth-place finish in the Group 1 Japan Cup, and he might still be feeling the effects of that long journey. Low odds would not be a bargain.

Sweetnorthernsaint has not won a graded stakes race since his victory in the Grade 2 Illinois Derby in 2006. But he was second vs. Grade 3 competition in Hawthorne's National Jockey Club Handicap, and then again in the Lone Star Park Handicap. He was rested from late May to late December, and was made the 6-5 favorite when he returned in the six-furlong Holiday Cheer at Turfway, his first race on a synthetic surface. Unfortunately for chalk bettors, Sweetnorthernsaint was never a factor when he finished a well-beaten sixth in that race. If that is an accurate gauge of his current form, or his ability to handle synthetic surfaces, he will be in trouble on Cushion Track. But there is also reason to expect significant improvement, as trainer Michael Trombetta shows 32 percent wins and a $2.29 return on investment from a group of 19 runners second time back from layoffs of six months and longer.

If you rate Big Booster on his eighth-place finish behind Student Council and Awesome Gem in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic, he would not be a factor in the San Antonio. But he was a close third behind Lava Man in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, and was beaten only a length by Tiago and Awesome Gem in the Grade 1 Goodwood. If Big Booster runs as well, or better, in his first start since late September, he can make his presence felt.

Zappa has won 4 of his last 5 races, but the only performance that gives him a look in this race is his 13-1 upset win over Well Armed and Heatseeker in the Grade 2 San Pasqual. He will probably have to continue to improve to upset this field.

Well Armed has early speed, and has been improving steadily. His supporters must hope for continued progress as he battles a stronger group than the one he faced when he returned from a freshening in the San Pasqual, where he finished second.

Racketeer beat Awesome Gem by a neck in an allowance race at Hollywood in May, but it is a concern that he finished behind three of these opponents when he finished fifth last time in the San Pasqual.

Heatseeker was the surprise winner of the Grade 3 Native Diver at 30-1, but lacked the late kick he needed to get past Zappa and Well Armed in the San Pasqual.

Rathor showed an affinity for Polytrack when he earned a career-best 103 Beyer in a $100,000 optional claiming race at Keeneland in April, but that doesn't necessarily mean he will like Cushion Track. If you are willing to give him a pass on his third-place finish on the turf in his return from a long vacation, this Bobby Frankel trainee could have a say with his best try.