04/24/2008 12:00AM

Surf Cat seems back to old self


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For the second time in three years, the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park on Saturday is a pivotal race in Surf Cat's career. In 2006, he ran arguably his best race in the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy, winning by 3 1/2 lengths and suggesting he would be a major player in races such as the Hollywood Gold Cup or Pacific Classic.

Injuries, however, prevented Surf Cat from racing for more than a year following his Mervyn LeRoy victory. When the 6-year-old Surf Cat starts on Saturday, trainer Bruce Headley hopes to use the 1 1/16-mile race as a prep for the $600,000 Metropolitan Mile Handicap at Belmont Park on May 26 or the $250,000 Californian Stakes here on May 31.

"He's a horse now," Headley said. "He should be ready for a real hard campaign."

Another win in the Mervyn LeRoy and in one of those stakes in late May would reestablish Surf Cat among the top older horses in the nation. In three starts this year, he has maintained excellent form in sprints, finishing third in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes Handicap, winning the Grade 2 San Carlos Handicap over seven furlongs in February, and finishing second in the Potrero Grande Handicap over about 6 1/2 furlongs on April 5.

"It's almost the same schedule that I followed" in 2006, Headley said. "The sprints help him. You need racing to be sharp."

In 2006, Surf Cat won the San Carlos and Potrero Grande, and went off at odds of 1-5 in the Mervyn LeRoy. He will be a better price on Saturday, but Headley is confident he will win.

Surf Cat is the 120-pound highweight in a field of 10. While Surf Cat has superior speed figures, there are a few in Saturday's field capable of an upset.

Monzante and Neko Bay, the first two finishers in the Santana Mile Handicap at Santa Anita on March 8, are each seeking a first graded stakes win. Monzante won the Santana Mile by three lengths.

Global Hunter, a group stakes winner in Argentina last year, makes his United States debut for trainer A.C. Avila.

Zappa, the winner of the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap in January, will be trying to end a three-race losing streak that includes a fifth in the Santa Anita Handicap.