02/07/2008 1:00AM

San Antonio's a real baffler


ARCADIA, Calif. - The muddled West Coast handicap division was difficult to untangle even before Santa Anita canceled racing Feb. 3 and postponed the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap six days.

Now the $250,000 race on Saturday is almost inscrutable because of the new synthetic track surface, and the irregular training patterns of the nine older horses that entered.

The 1 1/8-mile San Antonio will be run over a surface expected to be racing-operable for the first time Saturday. And while two-turn front-runners held the advantage on the old Cushion Track speedway, characteristics of the new surface remain a mystery.

Interpreting condition is more problematic. Though Hollywood Park-based horses such as Awesome Gem have not missed a beat, Santa Anita-based Student Council has stalled. Student Council is the only Grade 1 winner in the field, but he will enter the San Antonio as the only entrant without a recent work. His last breeze was on Jan. 26.

"I'm not as confident as I was a week ago," trainer Vladimir Cerin admitted. He said he was reluctant to ship the horse to Hollywood for a workout and that Student Council will "gallop strongly into the race."

Student Council won the Grade 1 Pacific Classic and Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup last year, and Cerin will use the San Antonio as a prep.

"I hope he finishes strongly and is fit enough to go to the Santa Anita Handicap" on March 1, he said.

Richard Migliore will ride Student Council, who was the 7-2 program favorite when the race was canceled last week.

The San Antonio 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; Grade 3 winner Heatseeker; Big Booster; and stablemates Rathor and Racketeer.

Sweetnorthernsaint and Well Armed stable at Santa Anita, and both shipped to Hollywood for works this week.

Well Armed's trainer, Eoin Harty, said, "It is not the ideal preparation, but those are the cards everybody has been dealt, so I don't think I'm any different."

If the delay benefits anyone, it could be Bobby Frankel-trained Racketeer and Rathor. Frankel said the postponement "probably helps them a little bit, because they went two weeks without doing anything."

Though based at Hollywood, Frankel backed off training both horses during a wet January. Frankel is particularly bullish on Racketeer, who was compromised by a wide trip and a slow pace last time when he finished fifth in the San Pasqual.

Awesome Gem will race for the first time since finishing third Oct. 27 in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Trainer Craig Dollase described Awesome Gem as a "light horse" who does not require a long sequence of workouts to prepare for a comeback. David Flores will ride Awesome Gem, who is expected to vie for favoritism with Student Council.

Zappa sprang a 13-1 upset in the San Pasqual, continues to train superbly, and can win right back. John Sadler trains Zappa, a former $20,000 claimer who has won 11 of his last 19 starts.