Updated on 09/16/2011 7:54AM

Sky Jack joins Big Cap fray

Benoit & Associates
The entry of Sky Jack, front-running winner of the 2000 Native Diver, means that Giant Gentleman probably will not get loose on the lead.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The surprise announcement that the front-runner Sky Jack will start in Saturday's $1 million, Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap has altered the complexion of the race, and possibly compromised the chances of one of the favorites, Giant Gentleman.

Instead of being loose on the lead in the 1 1/4-mile Big Cap as expected before the announcement, Strub runner-up , who will wheel back just three weeks after a huge comeback race.

Sky Jack was off 14 months when he returned to the races on Feb. 9, and missed winning by a nose in the fastest mile of the meet (1:35.39).

Trainer Doug O'Neill's initial plan was to resist the temptation of the Big Cap. "I told myself right after that race that I wouldn't run him back this quick, but he bounced out of the race in such good shape," he said. "I've talked to [owner-breeders Rene and Margie Lambert], and we feel it's a good opportunity."

Laffit Pincay will ride Sky Jack, one of the Big Cap top choices, due in part to the defection of impressive Malibu and Strub winner Mizzen Mast, who is nursing a quarter crack. "Even with that horse out, it's still a tough race," O'Neill said.

The entry of Euchre and Milwaukee Brew is expected to open favored on the track's morning line, with Giant Gentleman and Sky Jack secondary choices. A field of 11 is expected. Neither Giant Gentleman nor Sky Jack have raced beyond nine furlongs.

A knee chip kept Sky Jack from emerging last winter as a star. Front-running wins by Sky Jack in the California Cup Classic and Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park - in which he earned a 122 Beyer Speed Figure - indicated that he might be a threat to Tiznow. Instead, Sky Jack went to the sidelines with the kind of injury that sometimes spells the end of a career.

"He had a chip in a bad part of his right knee, where a lot of times they don't come back as good," O'Neill said.

While horses frequently return from knee chips on the upper part of their knee, Sky Jack's chip was on the bottom. "When it is a weight-bearing part of the knee, it's tougher for those horses to come back," O'Neill said.

There are exceptions. Sky Jack, a 6-year-old California-bred with 6 wins from 11 starts, came back with a vengeance. In a classified allowance that marked his comeback on Feb. 9, Sky Jack pressed a moderate pace and kicked home in 24.20 seconds - but was worn down from the outside by a sharp horse with an edge in condition, Reba's Gold.

"Was I surprised at how well he ran? Yes and no," O'Neill said. "He's such a nice horse, but to be off that long . . . I guess we'll know more on Sunday."

Sky Jack's comeback left some questions unanswered, including whether he is still the same speed demon he was before the injury. While the final time of the mile race was fast, the 47.07-second half-mile fraction he set was among the slowest of the meet for a mile dirt race.

Conversely, Giant Gentleman's fractional times when he pressed the pace in the nine-furlong Strub (45.12, 1:09.20) suggest he may still be the one to catch.

O'Neill said that win or lose, Sky Jack is "going to get a nice long break after this."

* Santa Anita linemaker Jeff Tufts said he was "leaning toward" making the entry of Euchre and Milwaukee Brew the favorite. Euchre comes off a second-place finish in the Grade 2 San Antonio. Milwaukee Brew finished a dull sixth in a non-graded stakes last time out at Fair Grounds. Milwaukee Brew will add blinkers for the Big Cap.