10/04/2007 11:00PM

Trying to find the right spot

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - There are some things that might have seemed like good ideas at the time - New Coke, the Edsel, marrying Britney Spears - but really didn't work out all that well. Trial and error can yield startling revelations or the question "What were they thinking?"

In the Grade 2, $250,000 Oak Tree Mile on Sunday at Santa Anita, both Lava Man and Surf Cat will be experimenting, trying to fit their square pegs into a round hole. Lava Man has been the best older main-track distance runner in California for three years. Surf Cat has been an elite sprinter who has stretched out to middle distances, but never on turf. Yet both will switch to turf and race at a distance that might not be ideal in attempts to find a Breeders' Cup race that fits.

For Lava Man, the Oak Tree Mile offers a chance to reclaim some of the sand that ran out of his hourglass when he floundered to a sixth-place finish in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 19. For Surf Cat, it is a chance to try a new surface and avoid running in the Ancient Title a half-hour later at a distance, six furlongs, too short for his closing style. Handicappers will have to decide if their ability will overcome those hurdles, or if one of their four rivals will prevail.

"If a horse is a runner, he'll run on anything," said Bruce Headley, who trains Surf Cat.

The Oak Tree Mile, which could be used a prep for the Breeders' Cup Mile on turf or the inaugural Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, is the sixth race on a 10-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m. Pacific. It is the second of three consecutive graded stakes that will be run at Santa Anita on Sunday, all with Breeders' Cup implications. Hystericalady should be a short-priced favorite in the Grade 1, $250,000 Lady's Secret, a prep for the Breeders' Cup Distaff, while three outstanding sprinters - Bordonaro, Greg's Gold, and Idiot Proof - meet in the Grade 1, $300,000 Ancient Title, a prep for the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Those three races are the final three legs of a national pick four that begins with the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes from Keeneland. All four races will be seen live on ESPN2 on a program that begins at 2 p.m. Pacific. And all four preps yield automatic berths to Breeders' Cup races through the "Win and You're In" program.

Lava Man no longer has an aura of invincibility, but it might be premature to assume his time has passed. He struggled on Polytrack at Del Mar, yet his turf form is terrific. He has finished first or second in 10 of 14 grass races, including a second-place finish to After Market going 1 1/4 miles earlier this year in the Whittingham at Hollywood Park.

"He's showing no signs of letting down," said Lava Man's trainer, Doug O'Neill, who has endorsed the move to turf because of questions about whether Lava Man is compromised on synthetic surfaces.

Of Lava Man's sixth in the Pacific Classic, O'Neill said, "It was really taxing for him to try to go a mile and a quarter on that type of surface."

Surf Cat returned from a 13-month layoff to finish second in a pair of seven-furlong sprints at Del Mar this summer. Headley thought it was more prudent to stretch out to a mile, even with the move to turf, than face Greg's Gold and the others going six furlongs in the Ancient Title.

"He's not really a six-furlong kind of horse," Headley said. "He's better at 6 1/2 or seven. He's built like a miler, long and lean and cat-like. And this is the best grass course there is. Besides a great base, they have all summer to grow it."

Surf Cat has worked three straight times on turf in preparation for Sunday's race. Headley is looking forward to facing Lava Man.

"Lava Man is a great horse, one of the greatest California-breds of all time," Headley said. "It's going to be quite a race. Like on the plains of the Serengeti, the young lion is looking at challenging at the old lion's seniority."

There are four others in the race - Courtnall, Get Funky, Out of Control, and Zann.

Get Funky was freshened during the summer after finishing second to The Tin Man in the Shoemaker Mile.

"Maybe some of the others are experimenting or prepping," Get Funky's trainer, John Sadler, said Friday morning. "Get Funky, a mile on grass is good for him. He's trained great for this."

Out of Control was sixth as the favorite in the Del Mar Mile after finishing second in the Eddie Read Handicap to After Market. His best race makes him a major threat.