07/12/2007 12:00AM

Tiago looks a cut above

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Tiago, shown training at Belmont the day before he ran third in the Belmont Stakes, his last race.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Tiago is a rarity among Southern California-based 3-year-olds this year. He won the Santa Anita Derby in April, ran in two legs of the Triple Crown, and is still running in top-class races this summer. None of the other top 3-year-olds based on the circuit managed to accomplish that.

Through all that activity, Tiago has had a respectable season, as evidenced by his third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes on June 9. That race will make him a strong favorite in Saturday's $350,000 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, the championship race of the meeting for 3-year-olds.

There are other reasons for bettors to support Tiago, who is trained by John Shirreffs for breeders Jerry and Ann Moss. He is the only member of the field to win a graded stakes at 1 1/8 miles, the same distance as the Swaps, and he has worked quickly in recent weeks, including a six-furlong breeze in 1:12 on July 1, the fastest of 20 works of the day.

And, Shirreffs says that Tiago is showing the poise of a veteran, despite having made only six starts. Even though Tiago was beaten 5 1/2 lengths by the filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes, over 1 1/2 miles, Shirreffs was relieved by the way that Tiago handled the buildup to that race.

"The big thing I was happy about was the way he handled the paddock, the crowd, and the excitement of Belmont Day," Shirreffs said. "He was very focused."

In the Kentucky Derby, Tiago finished seventh, 10 lengths behind the winner, Street Sense, and two lengths behind third-place Curlin. His preparation for the race did not go well, Shirreffs said.

"We shipped in close to the race, which was a mistake it turned out," Shirreffs said. "He was dehydrated for a day or two."

Tiago was as far back as 18th in the field of 20 in the Kentucky Derby, and he passed 11 rivals in the last half-mile under regular rider Mike Smith. "After the break, Mike had to ask him to get into the race, and that wasn't a good sign," Shirreffs said. "He was slightly out of sync."

Tiago's last start at 1 1/8 miles was his 29-1 upset in the Santa Anita Derby, when he rallied from ninth in a field of 10 to win by a half-length over King of the Roxy. Tiago made up 11 lengths in that race, but he is not likely to be that far back in the Swaps Stakes, which has drawn a field of six.

Tiago will be in pursuit of pacesetters Desert Code and Souvenir Slew. Desert Code led throughout the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap over 1o1/16 miles here on June 17, and is making his first start at 1 1/8 miles.

Souvenir Slew was third in the Grade 3 Colonial Turf Cup over 1 3/16 miles on turf in Virginia on June 16 in his graded stakes debut. He led to the final furlongs before finishing 2o3/4 lengths behind Summer Doldrums.

Trained by Craig Dollase, Souvenir Slew will be making his first start on a synthetic track. He starts from the outside post.

"We'll try something new," Dollase said. "Desert Code has speed. We've got a good tracking post."

The pacesetters will be closely tracked by Albertus Maximus, who was second in the Affirmed in his stakes debut. Trained by Gary Mandella, Albertus Maximus was beaten 1 3/4 lengths by Desert Code, but did make up ground through the stretch.

Albertus Maximus is likely to be in front of Tiago in early stretch, which may give him a slight advantage.

"I'm hoping that's what it amounts to," Mandella said. "He's trained well going into the race."

Mandella is certain that a longer race will benefit Albertus Maximus.

"I knew we'd never be unbeatable at a mile and a sixteenth," he said. "I knew he'd run well, but at no point did I think he'd be invincible. He wasn't really battle-tested going into the race. Young horses have to learn from that kind of experience."