03/04/2009 12:00AM

Team back on center stage


ARCADIA, Calif. - What was once commonplace has become a rarity. Owner John Toffan and trainer Paco Gonzalez will be after their first graded stakes win in nearly seven years when Burg Berg starts in Saturday's $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks at Santa Anita.

Toffan, along with his late partner Trudy McCaffery and Gonzalez, were fixtures at the top of racing in the 1990s and earlier this decade, racing such major stakes winners as Bien Bien, Bienamado, Came Home, Del Mar Dennis, and Free House.

In recent years, the structure of the stable has changed. Toffan and McCaffery disbanded their holdings, though Toffan continued to campaign a small stable with his wife, Cheryl.

Gonzalez did not have the same results. Gonzalez had two wins in 2005, one in 2006, and three in 2007. By comparison, Gonzalez had 21 winners in 2000 and 2001.

This year, keeping with a small barn, the outlook is brighter for Toffan and Gonzalez. At the current Santa Anita meeting, they have won with 4 of 13 starters, including Burg Berg, who enters the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks off back-to-back victories.

"We've got a little better horses," Toffan said. "All Paco needs is a good horse."

Toffan said the stable needed to be smaller.

"I had to get rid of a lot of horses, bad horses, too," Toffan said. "It takes a while to get it done. We're looking forward to what's happening now."

Burg Berg's wins have come on turf - in a maiden race on the hillside course on Jan. 17 and a one-mile allowance race on Feb. 4. In both races, she led throughout.

"She's been fairly impressive so far," Toffan said. "She hasn't run on [synthetic], but she trains on it and it doesn't seem to make any difference.

"I think she'll rate, too. She shows she can rate a little bit. We'll see if the other one can catch us."

The "other one" is Stardom Bound, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2008. In the Santa Anita Oaks, Stardom Bound will be heavily favored to win her fifth consecutive Grade 1 race. Stardom Bound won the Las Virgenes Stakes here on Feb. 7 in her lone start this year.

"I know it's a step up," Toffan said. "If there isn't a lot of speed, she should make the lead."

John and Cheryl Toffan bred Burg Berg, who is by Johannesburg out of Snowberg, a mare that Gonzalez trained for John Toffan.

There is hope in the barn that the filly will lead the stable back to more Grade 1 races beyond Saturday.

The Santa Anita Oaks drew a field of 10. Stardom Bound is one of three fillies that won stakes in their last starts, joined by Will O Way, winner of the California Oaks at Golden Gate Fields, and Beltene, who captured the Sunshine Millions Oaks.

The Oaks is the first of three Grade 1 stakes on Saturday's 11-race program. The $300,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf is led by Ventura, the winner of the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap in January. A 5-year-old mare, Ventura is making her first start against males since finishing second in the Woodbine Mile last September.

The feature race is the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, which drew a wide-open field of 14.

Raiding Party healthy and flourishing

Raiding Party seemed to lurch from one crisis to another in 2008. She had a bone chip removed from a knee early in the year and was sidelined a second time when an infection developed.

It has only been this winter that Raiding Party has settled into a consistent pattern, according to trainer Jim Cassidy. She won a first-condition allowance race in a 22-1 upset on Jan. 24, and will attempt to continue that success in a $56,000 allowance race at 1 1/16 miles in Friday's fourth race.

Raiding Party is part of a field of seven.

"I'm not saying this to blow hot air, but I've liked this filly since the day I bought her," Cassidy said. "She's made it through a lot."

Cassidy was reluctant to run Raiding Party on the main track earlier this year, but did so at the insistence of owner Tom Braly, he said. Cassidy would like to start her on turf, but she stays on the main track for Friday.

"She's spot on, so I'm happy with her," he said.

Raiding Party may set the pace on Friday. She must hold off Theodora, who won an optional claimer at a mile on Feb. 13 by a convincing 3 1/4 lengths.

Ebanks back from Rio

Ronnie Ebanks, the agent for jockey Tyler Baze, was back in town on Wednesday morning after spending the previous week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at Carnivale.

"It's the greatest place on Earth," Ebanks said. "That's the fourth year in a row I've gone."

Ebanks didn't slack on his work obligations, though. He had an international cell phone that helped him continue to book mounts. And he took advantage of a five-hour time difference that allowed him to sleep off the previous night's revelry.

Rain doesn't dampen birthday celebration

There might not be a more upbeat person, or better ambassador for Santa Anita, than Rosie Ybarra, who oversees the food stand on mornings at Clocker's Corner. On Wednesday, while a light, persistent rain fell, Ybarra arranged for a cake for trainer Barry Abrams, jockey Danny Sorenson, and retired jockey Gary Stevens, all of whom are celebrating birthdays this week.

"We've got to keep the spirit going," Ybarra said, peering out at the damp weather.

* The California Horse Racing Board has called a meeting Friday at Santa Anita to "determine the financial conditions" of Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields, and the XpressBet account-wagering network given the financial problems faced by their parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman