02/01/2008 12:00AM

Tiago has lots going for him in Strub


ARCADIA, Calif. - The upstart 4-year-olds Air Commander and Giant Gizmo can solidify a growing reputation if one of them wins Saturday's $300,000 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. Or, they may turn out to be easy targets for the veteran Tiago.

Air Commander and Giant Gizmo will need their best effort to win the Grade 2 race for 4-year-olds over 1 1/8 miles. Tiago, the leader of the California 3-year-old male division in 2007, needs a victory to affirm his reputation, which took a battering when he finished third as the 7-5 favorite behind Air Commander in the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes over 1 1/16 miles here on Jan. 12.

Tiago's loss did not overly concern his trainer, John Shirreffs, who expects the millionaire to emerge from the Strub as a leading contender for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 1.

"I don't like to read too much into it. It was one race," Shirreffs said of the San Fernando.

The Strub Stakes may be Tiago's to lose. The presence of the speedy Monterey Jazz, the winner of the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort Stakes on turf on Dec. 26, as well as Air Commander and Giant Gizmo, who race near the front, should ensure a quick pace that can help Tiago's kick.

At the least, the distance is ideal for Tiago, who won the 2007 Santa Anita Derby, Swaps Breeders' Cup Stakes, and Goodwood Stakes over 1 1/8 miles.

"I think the added distance will help him, and having had a recent race will help him," Shirreffs said.

The Strub is the most lucrative of five stakes on Saturday's 11-race program. The five stakes - the Robert Lewis Stakes, La Habra Stakes, Santa Monica Handicap, Thunder Road Handicap and Strub - will be run in consecutive races, beginning with the fifth race.

The Strub has drawn a field of nine, and none off the entrants is as accomplished as Tiago, who has won 4 of 10 starts and $1,264,270. Great Hunter, the winner of the Robert Lewis Stakes in 2007, and Slew's Tizzy, the winner of the Lone Star Derby last May, will be attempting to end losing streaks.

Tiago is on a two-race skid - a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27 and the loss in the San Fernando.

In the San Fernando, Tiago was sixth early and lost by 1 1/2 lengths under jockey Mike Smith. Tiago was third through the stretch and could not catch the first two finishers, Air Commander and Johnny Eves.

"I think that was the way the track was playing," Shirreffs said.

In the Strub, Shirreffs wants Tiago to be well off the pace for the first half-mile.

"I think the more patient Mike can be, the better he will run," Shirreffs said. "He likes to make the last run at them. I don't expect him to be much different. I see him more as a closer."

Air Commander and Giant Gizmo are improving.

Air Commander won his first stakes in the San Fernando, prevailing by a nose over Johnny Eves after a stretch-long duel. Air Commander performs best if jockey Aaron Gryder can "let him run," according to trainer Bob Baffert said.

"The pace scenario is important," Baffert said. "He needs to get into his long stride. It can't be stop and go with him."

Giant Gizmo, a Giant's Causeway colt trained by Bobby Frankel, will attract support because of his three-length win in a one-mile allowance race on Dec. 30. The win caught Baffert's eye.

Giant Gizmo "looks tough in there," Baffert said. "He could be something special."

Giant Gizmo has won 3 of 7 starts. Frankel said the Strub "doesn't look like the toughest race in the world," but it will be Giant Gizmo's first start at 1 1/8 miles.

Frankel cautioned that Giant Gizmo is "a question at the distance and comes back after a few weeks off the best race of his life."