03/03/2011 5:37PM

Twirling Candy the leader of Big Cap pack

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ARCADIA, Calif. – The emergence of Twirling Candy as top older horse in California this winter is no surprise to his trainer.

“I really believed we had a chance to have one of the premier horses this year,” John Sadler said. So far, so good.

Twirling Candy won the Grade 1 seven-furlong Malibu Stakes in track-record time Dec. 26, then stretched to 1 1/8 miles and crushed the Grade 2 Strub Stakes by more than four lengths Feb. 5. Two down, one to go.

Saturday at Santa Anita, Twirling Candy faces his toughest test. The 4-year-old colt is the 4-5 program favorite in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap at 1 1/4 miles.

The Big ’Cap is race 10 on a card with two other Grade 1’s. Caracortado meets Fluke in the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (race 9) for older turf horses. Earlier, Turbulent Descent tries to avenge a comeback loss to Zazu. The 3-year-old fillies meet in the $250,000 Santa Anita Oaks (race 4) at a mile and a sixteenth. First post is 12 noon.

JAY HOVDEY: Twirling Candy a prodigy all grown up

The Big ’Cap field is dominated by Sadler and Bob Baffert – they train six of the 11 runners. Sadler entered two; Baffert entered four. “We can’t make it easy for [Sadler],” Baffert said.

The best Baffert chance is Florida shipper First Dude, who has blossomed since arriving last month. “He likes California,” Baffert said. First Dude, who placed last year in five Grade 1 races, will set or press the pace. Baffert also entered Tweebster, Game on Dude and late-runner Spurrier.

In addition to Twirling Candy, Sadler will start front-runner Gladding. “We’ll use him to keep First Dude honest,” Sadler said, half-joking. Gladding is more than just a rabbit. He won the Grade 2 San Antonio on Feb. 6, and Sadler initially did not intend to run him in the Big ’Cap, but said, “I can’t keep him on the ground.”

The Big Cap also includes Soul Candy, Aggie Engineer, Pode, Setsuko and Quindici Man. They all have to beat Twirling Candy, whose campaign has unfolded perfectly, similar to Sadler’s winter operation. Sadler has won eight graded stakes this meet with Twirling Candy, Zazu, Gladding, Switch, Sidney’s Candy and Cozi Rosie.

MIKE WATCHMAKER: Twirling Candy vs. the last 10 Santa Anita Handicap winners

Twirling Candy was a fresh horse heading into winter. He suffered his first loss from five starts Oct. 2, finishing fourth against older in the Grade 1 Goodwood at Hollywood Park. The loss knocked Twirling Candy from consideration for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup, but Sadler and owner Jenny Craig already were looking forward to 2011.

“You want to keep young horses with their own generation as long as you can, so it was pretty clear the Strub series was where we were going,” Sadler said. “It was tailor-made for him.” Santa Anita’s three-race Strub series for 4-year-olds includes the Malibu, San Fernando at 1 1/16 mile, and Strub.

“We haven’t had any really hard choices,” Sadler said. “Everything has been out there, and fairly logical.” And it stayed logical as long as Twirling Candy kept winning.

Reunited with jockey Joel Rosario for a comeback in the Malibu, Twirling Candy out-gamed Smiling Tiger to win by a nose in 1:19.70 for seven furlongs, the fastest time in track history. Spectacular Bid who?

Favored at 1-2 in the Strub, Twirling Candy made it a mockery. He pressed the pace, cruised to the lead off the final turn, and won geared down.

Since then, Twirling Candy has trained super. Sadler credits Rosario for managing the colt’s idiosyncrasies. Last summer in the Del Mar Derby, he ducked out sharply and caused interference into the backstretch. Since then, he has been well-behaved.

“He was a little quirky early on, so Rosario works him all the time,” Sadler said. Horse and jockey get along, and Rosario has been on fire, winning 12 stakes this meet.

Twirling Candy, 6 for 7 overall, has added owners since his Strub win. Craig remains an owner, along with Lane’s End and Marty Wygod.

The Big Cap is the second try against older for Twirling Candy, and his first at 1 1/4 miles. Twirling Candy has a versatile style that should lead to a good trip just off the pace.

While the handicap division in California is shallow, a recent arrival from Florida threatens to mix things up. First Dude is only 1 for 13, but hit the board last year in the Travers, Haskell, Belmont, Preakness, and Blue Grass.

Formerly trained by Dale Romans, First Dude shipped to Baffert after finishing fourth in the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 29 at Gulfstream Park. “He looked good when he came here,” Baffert said. The Big ’Cap was not on his itinerary.

“I wasn’t planning on running him, but the way he worked the other day [changed his mind],” Baffert said. Owned by Donald Dizney, First Dude’s three Santa Anita works under Martin Garcia have been brilliant.

“Honestly, you don’t realize how fast you are going because he’s got a really big stride,” Garcia said. “Even if you think you are going slow, you are going very fast.” Garcia won the 2010 Big ’Cap with Baffert-trained Misremembered.