02/05/2006 1:00AM

Spellbinder getting better with age


ARCADIA, Calif. - Spellbinder proved on Sunday that he is improving with age, winning his first stakes in the $250,000 at Santa Anita. The 5-year-old had been third in two stakes in December and January.

The victory earned Spellbinder a start in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 4, which will be his debut in a Grade 1. Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss and trained by Richard Mandella, Spellbinder has won 5 of 18 starts and $751,394. Earlier in his career, he worked with notable Mandella-trained runners as Pleasantly Perfect and Rock Hard Ten.

In the Grade 2 San Antonio, Spellbinder ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.84, outfinishing pacesetter With Distinction to win by three-quarters of a length.

Ridden by Martin Pedroza, Spellbinder ($10.60) stalked With Distinction for the first seven furlongs, through early fractions of 22.93 and 46.60 seconds. Spellbinder took a narrow lead with a furlong remaining and was fully extended to win.

"That's kind of what he's turned out to be - a grinder," Mandella said.

With Distinction, who had run in sprints in the past year, finished a head in front of Wilko in the field of eight. Buckland Manor, the 5-2 favorite, finished last, tiring in the last half-mile.