02/23/2007 12:00AM

Tough choice Blanc's reward


ARCADIA, Calif. - Be careful what you wish for, or however it translates into French. Barely four months after returning to full-time competition in California, Brice Blanc found himself faced with that eternal conundrum of all jockeys in demand, with two good horses pointing for the same attractive race. Quel headache, non?

The race in question is Sunday's $150,000 San Luis Obispo Handicap at Santa Anita, a grass race at 1 1/2 miles that figures to be right up Blanc's alley. A 33-year-old native of Lyon, fully Americanized after more than a decade riding in the States, Blanc already has won two past runnings of the event, first in 1997 with Shanawi and then in 2002 with Nazirali.

Before he could even think about winning a third San Luis Obispo, however, Blanc had to choose between the upwardly mobile On the Acorn, winner of two straight local allowance races, and the stakes-class stayer One Off, winner of the San Marcos Handicap in his most recent start. In the end, Blanc got off On and stayed on Off. Sorry, but you knew that was coming. Let Blanc explain.

"It was a hard decision, but it's also pretty cool to have to make that kind of choice," Blanc said before Friday's Santa Anita card. "I had to go with One Off because he's a proven, graded stakes horse. The other horse is moving forward, and he was very impressive the other day. But he is going to be facing a level of competition he's never faced before."

Save the tears. Trainer Mike Mitchell and his fun-loving bunch of owners in the Indizguys Stable - including former major league manager Buck Rogers, Hall of Fame baseball writer Ross Newhan, and veteran sports reporter and racing publicist Jack Disney - found a suitable replacement for Blanc aboard On the Acorn, and little will be lost in translation. Julien Leparoux, the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice of 2006, will ride.

For the last two years, the San Luis Obispo served as a key prep for T.H. Approval, who went on to win back-to-back runnings of the historic San Juan Capistrano at the end of the meet, while in 2003 the race went to The Tin Man, a bonafide star and 2006 Eclipse Award finalist.

Still, it has been a while since the race could boast winners such as Kotashaan, Great Communicator, Quest for Fame, and John Henry. Instead, the San Luis Obispo has become regularly populated by solid soldiers, making hay until some superstar emerges from the clouds. One Off, a 7-year-old son of Breeders' Cup Mile winner Barathea, certainly fits the bill, and it should come as no surprise that Blanc went his way.

Trained by Neil Drysdale and owned by Burt and Jane Bacharach, One Off was good enough to run second in the 2006 San Juan Capistrano. He later took an allowance race at Hollywood Park in December, and then swept to victory on Jan. 21 in the 10-furlong San Marcos, acting as if he were entering a second childhood.

Blanc, riding One Off for the first time that day, did not panic when they were pinched and had to steady in the opening jumps.

"He's always been kind of a grinder," Blanc noted. "So when I got shuffled back leaving the gate, I had to go to plan B, not rushing him off his feet and just gradually make our way. That last eighth of a mile he really found his best stride and extended himself to the point that he was clearly the strongest finisher on that day. It was no optical illusion."

One Off uncorked a final quarter of about 23 seconds to beat Notable Guest, who appeared home and dry, by three-quarters of a length.

"Some horses just get better with age," Blanc said, alluding to One Off's senior status. "And they also get smarter. They know what they can do and when to use themselves for the real fight. This year, he just seems to be at the top of his form, and it doesn't really matter what you do with him out there. He just wants to run and he wants to win."

Since commencing his American career, Blanc has found himself typecast as a grass specialist. Perhaps it's his accent - although his English is gracefully fluent - or maybe it is his schooling in horsemanship as a young French apprentice that gives him the combination of skills and sangue froid to make a difference over a serious distance of ground. His major wins include the Matriarch, the Ramona, the Del Mar Oaks, the San Juan Capistrano, and the First Lady.

He also disappeared from California for a period of time, riding primarily in Kentucky. Putting business back together since his return late last year has been a challenge he knew he would have to face.

"In my case, though, I think it was a good thing," Blanc said. "Now I have more experience, not only in life, but especially in racing. It was good for me to learn about other tracks and other riders. I think it's really paying off now, because you need to be strong in both mind and body to compete at this level."