01/12/2006 12:00AM

San Fernando ain't what it used to be

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Sort It Out will go off cool on the board for red-hot trainer Bob Baffert.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes used to be a good race. That was back when horses had racing careers lasting more than one season.

It was a race Afleet Alex or Smarty Jones might have targeted if they were based in California, and if they ran at age 4.

Giacomo could have run in the San Fernando on Saturday at Santa Anita, but he is not quite ready. Too bad - Giacomo and his career-best 100 Beyer Speed Figure might have been a major bet-against for speed handicappers, or the overlay of the season on class.

But the Kentucky Derby winner is still only working, and healing from surgery in June for bone chips in an ankle and knee.

In place of Giacomo, a nondescript field of nine entered the San Fernando, including Greeley's Galaxy. He worked a sharp mile in 1:39.60 on Tuesday and is almost famous, even if his three post-Illinois Derby starts exposed him as just a good Grade 2-caliber horse.

Of course, that makes Greeley's Galaxy a perfect fit in the luster-less San Fernando, a race that used to mean something. It provided the best 3-year-olds of the previous year the chance to reproduce their form the following year, at age 4. It was a transition to the handicap division, and the middle leg of the three-race Strub series for 4-year-olds.

Nowadays, the San Fernando is just a $200,000 stakes for allowance horses. Too bad, because it was not that long ago that the San Fernando was a good race even when it was not worth wagering on, like the four-horse running of 1998, when dead-game Derby winner Silver Charm overhauled a loose-on-a-slow-pace Mud Route.

Just five years ago, Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow used the San Fernando as a launching pad toward victory in the 2001 Santa Anita Handicap. But the last four years, the San Fernando has been on life support and won by Minister Eric, During, Pass Rush, and Western Pride. Who? Since the San Fernando, their combined record is 3 for 40.

One reason for San Fernando anonymity is Thoroughbred fragility. Many top 3-year-olds from last year are out, or worse, pointing for the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 28. The Sunshine Millions series, restricted to horses bred in Florida or California, has sucked life from the midseason stakes schedule at Santa Anita.

It used to be that the previous year's Santa Anita Derby winner would aim toward the three-race Strub Series. Not this year. Buzzards Bay, the Florida-bred upset winner of the 2005 Santa Anita Derby, is aiming for the Sunshine Millions.

It is unfortunate. Buzzards Bay would have been a welcome addition to the Strub Series. So would Malibu winner Proud Tower Too, but he is a California-bred and also is aiming for the Sunshine Millions.

It is not the first time stars have wandered. Two years ago, Malibu winner Southern Image ditched the last two legs of the Strub Series and went for the Sunshine Millions jackpot. He won, then returned to a legitimate stakes, and also won the Big Cap.

Remember the nine-length sloppy-track romp by 1993 San Fernando winner Bertrando? He was a freak in the mud. If that California-bred were racing today, he would skip the $200,000 San Fernando and aim for the Sunshine Millions.

Best Pal, another California-bred, roared to a come-from-behind win in the 1992 San Fernando, and followed by winning three Grade 1's - the Strub, Big Cap, and Oaklawn Handicap. Is there a Big Cap contender in this year's San Fernando? Probably not.

It might still be a good race to bet. Brecon Beacon goes turf to dirt, trying to emulate another European import, 1991 San Fernando winner In Excess. In Excess switched surfaces and ripped 1 1/8 miles in 1:46.60, setting the stage for a campaign that included four Grade 1 wins in New York. Brecon Beacon probably will not run as fast or as far. The San Fernando was shortened to 1 1/16 miles in 1998.

Brecon Beacon was stabled at Hollywood Park up to his disappointing Dec. 26 turf-race comeback, after which trainer Doug O'Neill left him at Santa Anita to familiarize him with the main track. According to O'Neill, Brecon Beacon has thrived on dirt. "It's an experiment, but he's sure training well," O'Neill said.

Forecasters are talking about the chance of rain Saturday, which would impact the San Fernando. Rain might help one of the longest shots in the field, Sort It Out. His increasingly improved workouts for trainer Bob Baffert suggest the wet-track specialist (two wins) could be ready for a breakout effort in the San Fernando.

Baffert horses are running huge this winter. Of the 13 dirt horses this meet who earned triple-digit Beyers, five are trained by Baffert. Four earned career-best figures - Pussycat Doll (111), Western Hemisphere (104), Excessively Nice (101), and Too Much Bling (100). As for Sort It Out, he looks better all the time in morning works.

Baffert won the San Fernando two years ago with longshot During. He also won it in 1998 with Silver Charm.

That was back when the San Fernando was a good race. Now, it is just a good race on which to gamble, and significant only if you cash a bet. On Saturday, the San Fernando probably will go down in history as merely race 8 at Santa Anita, on Jan. 14, 2006.