12/23/2008 12:00AM

Surface can bring out the best

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Barbara D. Livingston
Colonel John has won five races and more than $1.4 million, with wins including the Santa Anita Derby and Travers Stakes.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Distance, surface, location. None of it matters for the 3-year-old colt Colonel John. He has won at seven furlongs and at 1 1/4 miles, Grade 1's on dirt and on synthetic tracks, in California and in New York.

Sometimes the best horse wins regardless, an idea worthy of recall on Friday when Santa Anita starts the longest meet of the year in Southern California - an 84-day marathon stretching from early winter to late spring.

And despite recent wet weather expected to continue through Christmas, there was no worry this week by racing officials, or the connections of Colonel John and Into Mischief, the key players in the traditional opening day feature - the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs.

"It seems like we have a main track, Pro-Ride, that is cooperating with us," the track's director of racing, Mike Harlow, said. "Even with the wet weather, the track has drained. Hopefully we won't have any problems and can look forward to a great meet."

It would be an improvement over the debacle of last winter, when a surface that did not drain properly led to a series of wet-weather cancellations. And while it is naive to suggest that all the kinks have been ironed out of engineered surfaces - injuries still do occur - indications are that, at very least, Pro-Ride handles rain.

Question is, how should handicappers handle Pro-Ride? Following the two-month fall meet at Hollywood Park which was largely dominated by speed on the Cushion Track main oval there, expectations are that front-runners on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride will come back to the field with far more regularity. Cheap speed does not hold.

"I think this track is going to favor the better horse, whoever that is," trainer Richard Mandella said. "I don't think it will be lightning fast like it was [during the fall]. I think it'll probably be a touch slower, which is fine."

Mandella will send out Into Mischief for what is expected to be the final start of his brief career in the Malibu, and bettors are likely to make him favored despite his rail draw. A 3-for-5 Grade 1 winner, Into Mischief scored a sharp Oct. 25 comeback by racing seven furlongs in 1:20.38. Owned by B. Wayne Hughes, Into Mischief's retirement has been planned since summer.

Meanwhile, Colonel John is just getting started. He finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, beaten five lengths after he loomed a threat into the lane. He shortens in distance and drops in class for the Malibu, a $250,000 race restricted to 3-year-olds. But can Colonel John get up at seven furlongs? No worries, according to trainer Eoin Harty.

"The largest winning margin of his career was when I ran him seven-eighths in breaking his maiden," Harty said. "Granted, that wasn't against Group 1 company, but I think he's got the tactical speed to be very effective."

Colonel John has won five races and more than $1.4 million, with wins including the Santa Anita Derby and Travers Stakes. Harty and owner WinStar Farm mapped a campaign for Colonel John that will include two highlights of the stakes schedule - the Strub Stakes on Feb. 7 and the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7.

Seven horses entered the Malibu, including likely pacesetter Bob Black Jack, Grade 1 winner Georgie Boy, Grade 2 winner Golden Spikes, allowance sprinter On the Table, and turf specialist Nownownow.

Colonel John and Bob Black Jack finished one-two last year in the Santa Anita Derby, which will be run this year on April 4. The Santa Anita Oaks for 3-year-old fillies is on Santa Anita Handicap Day, March 7. Stardom Bound, winner of Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, is aiming for the Oaks.

While the key handicapping adjustment away from Hollywood is the perceived vulnerability of early speed at Santa Anita, bettors will face another challenge during wet weather. That is the likelihood of turf specialists running on the main track.

The turf-to-synthetic angle was expected to occur often after the circuit became all-synthetic. That has not been the case, though. The Del Mar racing program is centered on turf, and there is less incentive to switch surfaces during that short meet. Meanwhile, Cushion Track at Hollywood now resembles dirt, and many horsemen have not been willing to experiment with a turf horse on that surface.

But this winter at Santa Anita, the turf-to-synthetic move may occur often. Bobby Frankel expects to start about 15 horses the first 10 days of the meet, most of them on turf. What if rain forces those races to the main track?

"I'll run," Frankel said. "I'll run unless they've already proven they cannot handle [synthetic].

"Grass horses are training very well on [Pro-Ride]," Frankel said. "They run on top of it, it doesn't slip away from them, they get good footing like on grass. With all the off tracks, I never used to run. Now, I'll probably be running a lot more."