02/06/2009 12:00AM

Talented trio no longer strictly turf


ARCADIA, Calif. - Cowboy Cal, Gio Ponti, and Nownownow have redefined their careers in the first six weeks of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting.

During that time, the three 4-year-olds, all major stakes winners on turf earlier in their careers, won graded stakes on the Pro-Ride main track. Such wins make them horses to follow in Saturday's $250,000 Strub Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile race at Santa Anita. A big performance in the Grade 2 Strub could lead to a start in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7.

Gio Ponti won his synthetic track debut in the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort Stakes over a mile on Dec. 26. The race was scheduled for turf but switched to the main track because of wet weather. The Sir Beaufort was one of Gio Ponti's finest performances in a career that includes four stakes wins, and led trainer Christophe Clement to leave the colt in California for the Strub, and not ship him to Florida for a race at Gulfstream Park.

"Since the Breeders' Cup is here, we wanted to try him one more time on it to be sure," said Clement's assistant, Nicholas Bachalard. "Chris always had it in the back of his mind to try the synthetic."

"He's been training well and I think he's put on weight. It will be a true test on Saturday."

Cowboy Cal was beaten a neck in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes on the Polytrack at Keeneland last April and was later ninth in the Kentucky Derby. His nose win against older horses in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 10 was his first start on a Pro-Ride synthetic track.

Trained by Todd Pletcher for Robert and Janice McNair, Cowboy Cal will be near the front in the Strub, and may set the pace. Cowboy Cal led throughout the San Pasqual over 1 1/16 miles under jockey John Velazquez, who has the mount on Saturday.

"It would be nice if he had a target," said Pletcher's assistant Michael McCarthy. "It seemed Johnny was able to get him to settle up the backside" in the San Pasqual.

Nownownow, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf in 2007, won his first stakes on a synthetic track in the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes on Jan. 17. He rallied from ninth in a field of 11 to win by 2 3/4 lengths as an 18-1 outsider.

Trained by Patrick Biancone, Nownownow will not be that high of a price in the Strub. Biancone said the addition of blinkers and a switch in surfaces were key to Nownownow ending a six-race losing streak in the San Fernando.

The surface switch occurred at the insistence of retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who recently worked Nownownow. The blinkers kept the colt focused.

"They are small blinkers, but they make him concentrate," Biancone said. "He was dropping back too much."

The Strub Stakes has drawn a field of 13. Dixie Chatter, the winner of the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes in 2007, has drawn the rail. Slew's Tiznow, who won two minor stakes last year, has drawn the outside.

Slew's Tiznow's post position discouraged trainer Doug O'Neill, who is hoping for a few defections to reduce traffic issues.

"We're focused on how well he's doing," O'Neill said.