02/03/2011 4:37PM

Strub brings out the best in the West

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Benoit & Associates
Twirling Candy, Joel Rosario up, wins the Malibu.

The jewel in the weekend’s crown is the $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, where I Want Revenge, Rule, Giant Oak, Square Eddie, and Fly Down mix it up at a mile and one-eighth.

About two hours after the Donn is done, 4-year-olds will tangle in the $200,000 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, followed out West on Sunday by the $150,000 San Antonio Handicap for ages 4 and up. Both of those events are nine furlongs on the main track as well.

A total of 24 horses have been entered in the three weekend events which, if nothing else, will give fans of the division a pretty clear snapshot of the names worth following. With Lookin At Lucky, Blame, and Quality Road retired, Rail Trip and Misremembered still ramping up, and Richard’s Kid exported, center stage is rip for the taking.

Each race boasts a rich history, replete with Hall of Fame winners. Forego, Foolish Pleasure, Skip Away, and Cigar won past Donns. Seabiscuit, Round Table, Ack Ack, Ancient Title, and Best Pal took the San Antonio, and the Strub, formerly the Santa Anita Maturity, was won by Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Precisionist and Silver Charm. Gun Bow won all three, including the 1964 Strub, when it was 1 1/4 miles, by a head-spinning dozen lengths.

By now, however, the Strub Stakes has become a daffy anachronism. The idea that newly turned 4-year-olds require the protection of a restricted event to display their wares makes no real sense, and the $200,000 could be added to the San Antonio to create a single West Coast event that would rival the Donn. Go ahead and call it the Strub if you want, but open it to all comers and create a race of true significance leading up to the Santa Anita Handicap in early March.

Still, any race that can lure Twirling Candy out of the barn is worth watching, and he will be heavily favored in the Strub. This is a marquee horse with the presence to match, a dark, seal-sleek piece of work with a wild streak as yet untamed by John Sadler and his patient crew. His track record performance in the opening-day Malibu Stakes was aided by a main track apparently canted downhill, but fast is fast. And remember, this was the same raw colt who fishtailed around the Del Mar turf course last summer like a Duke of Hazzard was at the wheel and still shaded 1:47 for a mile and one-eighth.

Twirling Candy is from the growing tribe of highly competent offspring of Candy Ride, the stallion who was raced all too briefly in California by Twirling Candy’s owner, Jenny Craig, and her late husband Sid. Sons and daughters of Candy Ride are for the most part are amiable, professional Thoroughbreds who seem to enjoy their work. Twirling Candy, however, has a female side haunted by the brilliant but erratic Juddmonte Farm mare Toussaud, who passed on her volatility to such offspring as Honest Lady, Empire Maker, Decarchy and Chester House, Twirling Candy’s damsire.

“I like to think of him as a panther, or like Dwight Howard, a real specimen,” Sadler said Thursday, referring to (a) the 200-pound predatory cat and (b) the All-Star center for the Orlando Magic. Good choices.

“He’s a big, strong aggressive colt, one of the horses you keep behind a screen, because he's very tough,” Sadler went on. “But on the track he’s become all business.”

Some of Twirling Candy’s evolution Sadler credits to the colt merely aging from 3 to 4. And some of it he credits to the fact that Twirling Candy has been provided with steady workmates, both in the saddle and at his side.

“Joel Rosario gets on him all the time now,” Sadler said. “So he knows just what to expect every time he gets a leg up. And since we got him his own work horse, he’s been great. He was getting too hard on the other horses in the barn.”

Before Sadler brings Twirling Candy over for the Strub on Saturday, he will try to spring a surprise in the day’s Grade 1 event, the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes at a mile on the main track, with the Tapit filly Zazu.

It’s a tall order. The Las Virgenes will see the 2011 debut of Turbulent Descent, the undefeated daughter of Congrats who took complete control of the West Coast 2-year-old filly division late last year with victories in the Moccasin and the Hollywood Starlet. The only lingering question would be Turbulent Descent’s ability to transfer synthetic form to Santa Anita’s sandy loam.

“Zazu is doing well, and she’s very hearty,” the trainer said. “These Tapits have good engines.”

The fact that Zazu is owned by Ann and Jerry Moss and sports a name that begins with “Z” can only be a good thing, but that’s as far as it goes. Zazu has a maiden win and three seconds in five starts, which includes a steadily closing and narrowly beaten second in the seven-furlong Santa Ynez Stakes last time out.

“I think she kind of ran against a bias in her last start,” Sadler noted. “But she has been beaten twice by Turbulent Descent, and she ran what I thought was a good race both times. But I’d never be so bold as to say we’re going to beat that other filly.”