04/01/2011 3:26PM

Santa Anita: Spawr expects big effort on dirt from Amazombie in deep Potrero Grande

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Amazombie will get dirty Sunday at Santa Anita, and that is a good thing.

“He’s better on dirt,” trainer Bill Spawr said. “I think he’ll run on anything, but Mike [Smith, his jockey] likes him better on dirt.”

An improving gelding who ran second in a turf stakes last out, Amazombie returns to preferred footing Sunday in the Grade 2 Potrero Grande, where the only thing stopping him from his first graded stakes is the deepest sprint field assembled this meet.

Crown of Thorns, a Grade 2 winner and runner-up four successive Grade 1’s, returns from minor arthroscopic surgery with a series of powerful workouts.

“He looks as good as ever,” trainer Richard Mandella said. “I expect him to run really good.”

He will have to, because the 6 1/-furlong Potrero Grande also includes three other graded stakes winners returning from layoffs – M One Rifle, Atta Boy Roy, and Chocolate Candy.

Along with Grade 2-caliber Ventana and Captain Cherokee, and allowance sprinters Bet On Victor and Don Tito, the Potrero Grande shapes up as the top sprint of the meet even without Smiling Tiger or Euroears.

Amazombie won 5 of 13 on turf and synthetic before Spawr and co-owner Tom Sanford switched the California-bred gelding to dirt. Although he lost by a head to stakes winner Cayambe the first time he tried the Santa Anita main track, jockey Smith was convinced.

“He loves this! He loves this!” Smith shouted to Spawr while he jogged Amazombie back to be unsaddled. Amazombie stayed on dirt and subsequently won the $200,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint by a head over Apriority, who flattered the race by winning an allowance at Gulfstream Park next out with a 113 Beyer.

When he entered Amazombie in the Sensational Star Handicap on Feb. 27, Spawr hoped rain might force the turf sprint to be moved to the main track. No such luck. Amazombie ran well, but was second-best behind turf sprint specialist Quick Enough.

Amazombie has won 6 of 16, and enters the Potrero Grande at the top of his game. But so is Crown of Thorns, even though he has not raced since October.

At 6-year-old with eight starts, Crown of Thorns returns with an unusual record – runner-up finishes in four Grade 1’s the past 17 months – the Ancient Title and Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2009, and the Pat O’Brien and Goodwood in 2010. Crown of Thorns was favored for the 2010 BC Dirt Mile, but scratched the day before the race when an old knee problem flared up.

Crown of Thorns underwent arthroscopic surgery to “clean up old tissue” on the outside of his knee,” Mandella said. While eligible to a second-level allowance, 2-for-8 Crown of Thorns has earned $687,080, more than any other entrant. Rafael Bejarano rides.

Captain Cherokee finished second both starts this meet, Grade 2 races won by leading California-based sprinters Smiling Tiger and Euroears. Steve Asmussen trains, and Joe Talamo rides, the 4-for-14 Captain Cherokee.

M One Rifle went off form following his gate-to-wire upset in the 2009 Malibu Stakes, a seven-furlong race for 3-year-olds run on Dec. 26, opening day of the 2009-10 winter meet. Trainer Bruce Headley said the gelding only needed time.

The drawback for M One Rifle is that Headley planned for an allowance prep race one month ago. The race did no fill, so M One Rifle goes into the Potrero Grande on works alone. Chantal Sutherland rides.

Chocolate Candy, off since June due to quarter cracks, is using the Sunday stakes as a tune-up for the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Mervyn LeRoy on May 1 at Hollywood Park.

Bet on Victor was out with a stress fracture, and has trained well for his return. Atta Boy Roy also has been working fast at Turf Paradise.