01/10/2008 12:00AM

Talk of a Cat faces new test

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Everything is changing this winter at Santa Anita, including the complexion of the local crop of 3-year-olds.

The deck gets shuffled Saturday when graded stakes winner Massive Drama takes on five others in the Grade 2 San Rafael Stakes, a one-mile race in which his main rival is stepping up after scoring one of the most impressive maiden wins of the Hollywood Park fall meet.

Talk of a Cat trounced maidens by 5 1/2 lengths for trainer Todd Pletcher on Dec. 1, and Saturday he gets tested for class and distance. It's a big jump from maiden sprint to graded route, but jockey Garrett Gomez said the biggest surprise already occurred.

"He actually did something that, with his stride, you wouldn't think he could get done - sprinting," Gomez said. "He's got a nice long stride; he'll go further."

Talk of a Cat earned a 90 Beyer Speed Figure; the victory was validated when runner-up Coast Guard returned to win. Talk of a Cat, sired by Tale of the Cat, has had six weeks to recover.

"He's had plenty of time to get past it," assistant trainer Michael McCarthy said. "I think we can rule out the bounce factor."

Talk of a Cat will need to be more than just fast on Saturday, because the San Rafael (race 5) came up strong. Massive Drama is expected to go favored after a third-place finish in the Gradeo1 CashCall Futurity; El Gato Malo has cruised in both of his starts, including the $75,000 Gold Rush Stakes at one mile; and Sierra Sunset won the California Cup Juvenile. Debut winner Overbid and late-runner Indian Sun are longshots.

Massive Drama won his first two sprints pressing the pace, but when he went long in the 1 1/16-mile CashCall Futurity he did not see the front.

"I thought he would be on the lead," trainer Bob Baffert said. "But they were all rushing. [Kent Desormeaux] thought he could relax, but he didn't really settle."

Breaking from post 2, Massive Drama pulled early, made a run into the lane, and then missed by 1 3/4 lengths. He switches riders and posts on Saturday, with new jockey Rafael Bejarano breaking from post 6 in the six-horse field.

"He won't have to be locked in," Baffert said.

El Gato Malo followed a big debut win with a runaway win in a one-mile stakes at Golden Gate.

"He did it the right way - he got the two turns and handled the ship," trainer Craig Dollase said. "He's coming into the race with lots of confidence."

Ridden in his first two starts by Patrick Valenzuela, El Gato Malo will be ridden Saturday by David Flores. After winning his debut with a pressing trip, El Gato Malo was rated early in the Gold Rush Stakes, cut the corner into the lane, and powered home in visually impressive style.

If the San Rafael unfolds as expected, Talk of a Cat will race to the lead while pressed by Massive Drama, and those two will try to hold off El Gato Malo.