02/25/2012 3:03PM

Santa Anita: Big Cap contender Ultimate Eagle has advanced far in a year's time

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ARCADIA, Calif. – A year ago, Ultimate Eagle was an unraced maiden who had survived a bout with colic as a 2-year-old. Next weekend, the 4-year-old starts in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” trainer Mike Pender said.

That whirlwind has included graded stakes wins in three of the colt’s last four starts, most notably a victory by 7 1/4 lengths in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds over 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 4.

The Big Cap will be Ultimate Eagle’s first start on a dirt track over 1 1/4 miles, an issue that does not concern Pender.

“He handles dirt better than turf,” Pender said.

The trainer’s confidence was elevated on Saturday after Ultimate Eagle worked five furlongs in 1:00.40 at Hollywood Park.

Ridden in the workout by jockey Martin Pedroza, Pender timed Ultimate Eagle galloping out six furlongs in 1:11.20.

“It’s all systems go for the Big Cap,” Pender said.

Ultimate Eagle is part of an expected field of 11 in the Big Cap, which is led by defending champion Game On Dude. Trained by Bob Baffert, Game On Dude won his prep race in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes on Feb. 5, and was second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last fall.

Other probable starters are Boxeur des Rues, Fiddlers Afleet, Gladding, Holladay Road, Prayer for Relief, Ron the Greek, Setsuko, Twice the Appeal, and Uh Oh Bango.

There are three Grade 1 races on Saturday, and Pender has a starter in the $300,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf in Jeranimo, the runner-up in the Grade 2 San Gabriel Stakes over 1 1/8 miles on turf on Jan. 16. Last year, Jeranimo won two stakes – the Grade 2 Oak Tree Mile and Grade 2 Citation Handicap.

In the Citation, Jeranimo was ridden by Garrett Gomez, who has been sidelined since Jan. 8 with a heel injury. Gomez said last week that he hopes to begin riding in early March, and Pender expects the 40-year-old rider to be aboard Jeranimo in the Kilroe Mile.

Saturday, Jeranimo worked five furlongs in 1:01.40 at Hollywood Park. The 6-year-old Jeranimo won the 2010 Strub and was fourth in the Santa Anita Handicap that year, but has raced mostly on turf in the last 16 months.

“It was a foundation work,” Pender said. “He had his speed work last week.”

Jeranimo worked five furlongs in 59.40 seconds on Feb. 19. Jeramino will not be favored in the Kilroe, a role that will go to Mr. Commons, who has won two stakes at this meeting.

Both Ultimate Eagle and Jeranimo are owned by B.J. Wright of Pasadena. Pender says his team is ready to take on any rival in the Big Cap and Kilroe Mile.

“We couldn’t be more tied on for next weekend,” Pender said.

Turf prep for dirt stakes

Charm the Maker, the winner of the Sharp Cat Stakes at Hollywood Park last November, has had an unconventional preparation for next Saturday’s $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes, a Grade 1 for 3-year-old fillies over a mile.

Trainer Ron McAnally worked her on turf at Santa Anita on Saturday – six furlongs in 1:14.40 – instead of a main track workout.

“They seem to run better that way,” McAnally said.

In the Las Virgenes, Charm the Maker will face the stakes winners Killer Graces, Reneesgotzip, and Willa B Awesome.