Updated on 02/28/2013 11:28AM

Santa Anita Handicap: Called to Serve returns an improved horse

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Called to Serve, here winning the Discovery at Aqueduct in November, began his career in California.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Called to Serve behaved like a kid when he arrived at trainer Nick Canani’s Belmont Park stable last fall.

“He was quite a handful,” Canani recalled.

The gelding had finished third in the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park in August and third in the Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park in late September when owner Marc Ferrell moved him from trainer Peter Eurton in California to the Eastern-based Canani.

Canani thought Called to Serve needed to mature and settle down. The solution was long morning walks during training hours on the Belmont Park backstretch. The result was a more relaxed colt who went on to win two stakes at the end of 2012. The next goal is Saturday’s $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap, the first start in a Grade 1 for Called to Serve.

“I can’t wait for it to get here,” Canani said last weekend.

A victory by Called to Serve, 4, would be a unique chapter of Big Cap history – the first time a father and a son have won the track’s signature race for older horses. Julio Canani won the 1989 Big Cap with the upset winner Martial Law. Nick Canani, now 39, was 15 at the time.

“I remember being in the winner’s circle,” he said. “I remember it rained that day.”

Nick Canani was based in Southern California at the start of his training career and now has 16 horses at Belmont Park. When Called to Serve joined the team, the training plan was designed to calm the horse, who had won twice in Southern California in spring 2012 after being gelded in February of that year.

“My whole staff spent a lot of time with him,” Canani said. “All that time with him seemed to pay off.

“I think the horse developed mentally. It took a couple of weeks. Everybody could see a bit of a change. It took a couple of weeks to take the edge off and get him to enjoy what he’s doing.”

Called to Serve was beaten a nose in the Temperence Hill Stakes at Belmont Park last October in his first start for Canani. He has not lost since, winning the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct in November and the Broad Brush Stakes at Laurel in December.

Those stakes wins were at 1 1/8 miles. The Big Cap is run over 1 1/4 miles, the first time that Called to Serve will have run that far.

“I think the mile and a quarter is not going to be an issue,” Canani said.

Canani gained confidence from Called to Serve’s patient style of winning the Discovery and Broad Brush with an off-the-pace rally.

“He did it the right way,” Canani said. “He relaxed early and finished well.”

Canani brought Called to Serve to California in early February, far enough in advance of Saturday’s race for two workouts. Jockey Gary Stevens rode Called to Serve in his workouts, giving him a chance to get to know a gelding he will ride for the first time Saturday.

“Every horse is different,” Canani said. “I think getting him here well before the race, working twice, and settling into the scenery are positives for him.”

Called to Serve’s former trainer, Eurton, based at Santa Anita, has watched with interest as his former charge has trained for Saturday’s race. Eurton recalled that Called to Serve was a colt with “a lot of nervous energy” before he was gelded.

Eurton said that lengthy travel from California to races in Oklahoma and West Virginia took its toll on Called to Serve last year.

“He’s still a fresh and good-feeling horse,” Eurton said. “He’s not a lazy horse. He’s still playful.

“I’m happy for Marc, but I wish he was still part of my barn.”

After the Big Cap, Called to Serve will head back to New York, where Canani expects him to run in such major stakes as the $350,000 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park on July 6; the two $750,000 stakes at Saratoga, the Whitney Handicap on Aug. 3 and the Woodward Stakes on Aug. 31; and the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Sept. 28.

Ideally, Called to Serve would be back at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2.

A win on Saturday against top-class rivals Game On Dude, defending champion Ron the Greek, and Richard’s Kid would prove that he belongs in those races. Canani already thinks he does.

“There is no question in my mind,” Canani said.

“He’s a completely different horse. His demeanor in the paddock is different. He’s a different horse in the afternoon. He turned from a green 3-year-old to a mature 4-year-old.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the date of the Suburban Handicap. It will be run on July 6.