03/01/2006 1:00AM

Spellbinder works his way up


ARCADIA, Calif. - Long before he won his first stakes in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 5, Spellbinder went through morning trials designed to prepare him for a race such as Saturday's $1 million .

Last year, when Spellbinder was running in allowance races, he was an occasional workmate for stablemate Rock Hard Ten, who won the 2005 Big Cap. Sometimes, Spellbinder kept up with Rock Hard Ten, giving owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer Richard Mandella hope that Spellbinder could become a stakes horse.

While it took longer than expected to reach that level, Spellbinder has an outsider's chance in Saturday's Grade 1 Big Cap.

"When he was a workmate for Rock Hard Ten, he never gave up," Jerry Moss said. "I think that impressed Richard."

Spellbinder drew post 4 of nine in the 1 1/4-mile Big Cap. He is drawn one spot to the inside of High Limit, the expected favorite and the winner of the Strub Stakes on Feb. 4.

The Mosses have two entrants. They also start Giacomo, the winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby who was third in the Strub last month in his first start since June. Giacomo drew post 7, which should complement his closing style.

Team Spellbinder has ample Big Cap experience.

The Mosses won the race with Ruhlmann in 1990; Spellbinder's jockey, Martin Pedroza, pulled an upset aboard Martial Law in 1989; and Mandella is seeking his fourth win in the race.

Spellbinder, a winner of 5 of 18 starts and $348,129, has never run as far as 1 1/4 miles, a point that does not concern Pedroza.

"He's a pretty game horse," Pedroza said. "He reminds me of Martial Law. Martial Law was a gutty horse and so is this one."

Jerry Moss was encouraged by the San Antonio, where Spellbinder raced near the front and won by three-quarters of a length.

"He won going away," Moss said. "I think he'll get the distance. He sure has turned into a nice horse."

The field was expected to have 11 entrants, but Fitz Flag and Top This and That were not entered.

Fitz Flag, an Argentine import who has yet to win in the United States, has been sidelined with an undisclosed leg injury. Top This and That, who was second in the Strub, has a quarter crack in a front foot, trainer Dan Hendricks said.