03/03/2011 5:44PM

Twirling Candy a prodigy all grown up


From some angles, Twirling Candy could have gone the Charlie Sheen route, squandering the advantages of good breeding and ample opportunity by indulging in behaviors of questionable worth.

He was a bit of a spoiled kid and acted the part – Twirling Candy, that is – but those days seem to be distant memories. To watch him in action now, morning or afternoon, is to behold the results of an impressive graduation, from the unfinished prodigy who won a chaotic Del Mar Derby to the thoroughly professional athlete who will come over Saturday afternoon in the role of heavy favorite to win the 74th running of the Santa Anita Handicap.

With its purse of $750,000 and its 1 1/4 miles on sandy loam, the Santa Anita Handicap is the place every serious older horse should be this weekend. Unfortunately, the West Coast has not been able to nurture great depth in the division over the past few years, what with the confusing signals sent by the results of major racing over four different types of synthetic surfaces.

The fact that a colt the quality of Twirling Candy can emerge speaks volumes for the breed. Ridden by Joel Rosario, his Malibu Stakes win at the beginning of the meet was chillingly efficient, when he defeated the West’s best sprinter, Smiling Tiger, by a measured nose. Twirling Candy’s subsequent romp in the Strub Stakes took the breath away, revealing him to be that rare individual capable of making any kind of move at any point in a race. Or having, as trainer John Sadler put it, “Gears.”

It is the sight of a horse with multiple accelerations over a distance of ground that sticks longest with the people who handle them. Sadler’s first brush with the concept came in 1980 when he witnessed Spectacular Bid throw three runs at the Santa Anita Handicap, over a slick, messy racetrack in a cold and miserable driving rain, and finish the 1 1/4 miles looking for more.

“My first memory of the Handicap was in connection with our family friends the Rowans,” Sadler said, referring to California racing pioneers Lou and Susan Rowan. “I was here the day Quicken Tree came through along the rail to beat Fiddle Isle. The Rowans gave me a picture of the finish.”

Sadler was 13 when Quicken Tree won the Handicap and a fledgling trainer of 23 when Spectacular Bid did his thing in the same race. Now, operating out of the same Santa Anita barn where he groomed horses for trainer Tom Pratt as a teenager, Sadler will attempt to take another step with a colt for whom the sky would seem to be the limit.

“I can’t say I was surprised by the Strub,” Sadler said. “That was the horse he was becoming all along. When people think of the Del Mar Derby last summer they can’t get past what he did the first part” – when Twirling Candy blew the turn onto the backstretch – “when in spite of that he ended up getting the mile and an eighth in 1:46 and change, under wraps.”

Twirling Candy is a son of Candy Ride, but physically is very much his own man, sporting a dark chocolate brown coat, three white stockings and a couple of little cotton ball puffs of white between the eyes. Like many dark-coated horses, he is best revealed when the light hits him at certain angles. In his case the main attractions are a stayer’s sloping shoulder and a hind leg that ripples with muscled articulation.

Any suggestion that Twirling Candy might want lapse into the naughty indescretions of his youth was dispelled, at least from this reporter’s point of view, on Thursday morning. Taking a long walk around the makeshift tow ring smack in the middle of a major backstretch road running to the side of Sadler’s Barn 56, Twirling Candy was unfazed as vet trucks rambled past and horses went back and forth, heading to other barns. Not even the odd sight of trainer Bruce Headley’s vintage Rolls Royce parked nearby caught Twirling Candy’s eye. But then, in terms of taste, the colt is probably more of a Ferrari kind of guy.

Once inside, Twirling Candy was back under the eye of his groom, Luciano Correa, who has been with Sadler for 25 years. Correa, 46 and from the Mexican state of Michoacan, gave Twirling Candy’s feet a good wash, picking at the slightest specks and then powdering the heels, before the colt was led into his stall. As Twirling Candy did what all horses tend to do when the hay is fresh and fluffed, Correa rinsed the dust from a tub of green alfalfa, then arranged the hay in an appetizing pile in the far corner of the stall.

“He was a child, now he’s grown up,” Correa said. “I have a lot of horses for John through the years. But never one like this.”

There is a danger, of course, in getting too high too soon on a race horse without serious justification. Twirling Candy, though, is beginning to look like the real thing from all angles. He has won six of his seven starts, each one of them offering more evidence that we might be looking at something special. The fact that Will Farish and Marty Wygod are now partners in the colt with his breeder, Jenny Craig, means he might be off to stud sooner than later, but that’s the way the game is played.

The trick is to enjoy him in the meantime, while his fate is in the hands of Sadler and Rosario, not to mention his groom. As he unhooked Twirling Candy from the back wall, Correa was asked if he knew he might become as famous as the horse. Crazy as it was, the thought made Correa smile.

“I hope so,” he answered.