03/02/2007 12:00AM

Two nice 3-year-olds behind but catching up


ARCADIA, Calif. - At a time when most Triple Crown prospects are running in stakes, Air Commander and Family Talk are behind schedule. They make their first starts in an allowance race at Santa Anita on Sunday.

The two 3-year-olds were impressive maiden winners earlier this year, making them outside candidates for the major stakes in April. Both need to run well in Sunday's ninth race at 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita to have any chance of making such races.

"From here on out, any race in March is a big race," said Bob Baffert, who trains Air Commander. "We all want to move forward. I've had high hopes for him, but he's got to prove it."

Air Commander, a massive Point Given colt, is expected to be favored. He will be ridden by leading jockey Garrett Gomez, who was aboard for a maiden win by three-quarters of a length over Pavarotti at 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 4.

Since that race, Air Commander has had three quick workouts, including five furlongs in 57.80 seconds here last Monday.

"He's a big horse and he's learning how to run," Baffert said. "He's still a big baby. He's improving with every out. I think a mile and an eighth should suit him well."

Family Talk, a colt by Talk Is Money, is making his first start in California, having been acquired privately by Ty and Lee Leatherman and Jason Wood following a maiden win at Fair Grounds on Jan. 25.

Now trained by Doug O'Neill, Family Talk rallied from last in a field of eight to beat maidens going 1o1/16 miles.

"In his maiden win, he got a fast number and ran visually well," O'Neill said. "He was so far back and came between horses. He was involved in a little bit of traffic and pushed his way through. He's an extremely nice colt."

Air Commander and Family Talk are part of a field of six. None of the six runners has stakes experience.

Margenot is making his third start. A Tiznow colt, Margenot was third behind Court the King and Tenfold in a mile allowance race on Feb. 2. Margenot will race with blinkers for the first time on Sunday.

A Shore Thing, who has won his last two starts against claimers, and Stella Mark and Fast Corredor, who were well beaten in an optional claimer on turf on Feb. 7, are the other entrants.

Two claiming winners eyeing stakes

Phar to Win and Bettersweet-moment, the winners of optional claiming races on Thursday, are bound for California-bred stakes later this month, their respective trainers said.

On Thursday, Phar to Win led throughout a 1 1/4-mile race on turf for his fifth win in eight starts. Trained by Ray Bell for Betty and Robert Irvin, Phar to Win will be pointed for the $100,000 Crystal Water Handicap at a mile on turf on March 18.

Bettersweetmoment will be pointed for the $125,000 Irish O'Brien Stakes for fillies and mares on the hillside turf course, after winning an optional claimer at six furlongs. Thursday's race was her eighth win in 11 starts and third consecutive victory since being claimed for $25,000 in December by James and Marcia Equils and trainer Steve Knapp.

Gryder on verge of milestone

March should be a memorable month for jockey Aaron Gryder.

This weekend, he is likely to score the 3,000th win of his career. On March 11, he rides the remarkably quick Smokey Stover in the $100,000 Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Friday morning on the Santa Anita backstretch, Gryder said he was eager to win his 3,000th race. Gryder won the 2,999th race of his career in Friday's third race aboard Topper's Gold ($11). After five races Friday he remained at 2,999.

"If I don't do it today, I'll do it tomorrow," Gryder said.

Through Thursday, Gryder was fourth in the standings with 25 wins. While he was well behind Gomez (58 wins) and Victor Espinoza (47), Gryder trailed third-place David Flores by only six wins.

The success comes a year after Gryder moved back to California from the East Coast. A California native, Gryder, 36, began his career here in 1987.

"It's great to do it here because I've had more fun in the last six months than in the previous 19 and a half years," he said. "I've really enjoyed it."

While the 3,000-win plateau is an accomplishment, Gryder is just as interested in winning big races. He is hoping that Smokey Stover can develop into a top-class sprinter, perhaps worthy of a start in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in October.

"He seems like a high-quality horse," he said. "I think he'll be a fresh horse through the year. It will be exciting if he can stay in the form that he's in."

Hollywood accepts stall applications

Hollywood Park is accepting stall applications for its spring-summer meeting, which starts April 25. The applications are due Friday.

Racing secretary Martin Panza said the barns are currently full. He said there will be some turnover in the stable area and urged trainers to file paperwork as soon as possible.

Hollywood Park has a synthetic racing surface that has proven popular with trainers, who say the surface is kind on horses.

Dubai-bound Proud Tower Too works

Proud Tower Too, the winner of the $2 million Golden Shaheen in Dubai last March, breezed a half-mile in 49 seconds at Hollywood Park on Friday, preparing for this year's Golden Shaheen on March 31.

Trained by Sal Gonzalez, Proud Tower Too is winless in three starts this year, the most recent of which was a second to Latent Heat in the Grade 2 San Carlos Handicap here on Feb. 17.

* The $75,000 Tapestry Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs, scheduled for Sunday, was canceled Friday when the race didn't draw sufficient entries. Trainer John Sadler had hoped to use the Tapestry as a stakes debut for Coco Belle, who has won her last two starts. Sadler said Coco Belle will be pointed for the $100,000 Santa Paula Stakes at 6o1/2 furlongs on April 1.