01/31/2009 1:00AM

Ventura towers over Santa Monica foes


ARCADIA, Calif. - The $300,000 Santa Monica Handicap at Santa Anita on Saturday is the first Grade 1 race of the year in California. It should be little more than an exhibition.

The dream rematch between Ventura and Indian Blessing, the first two finishers of the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint here in October, will not take place. Indian Blessing, the champion female sprinter of 2008, will be scratched, trainer Bob Baffert said Thursday.

"I'm not going to run," Baffert said. "I entered to see how the race set up."

Indian Blessing's absence leaves Ventura as an overwhelming favorite in her first start since a comprehensive four-length win in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

Garrett Gomez, who rode Ventura in the Breeders' Cup and admittedly has a biased opinion, considered that performance to be the highlight of the two days of Breeders' Cup races.

"I thought hers was the most impressive, beating the sprint champion," Gomez said. "I call her my little deer. She's petite and she's strong. Her turn of foot is amazing, on the grass or synthetic.

"She does it all. She was second against the boys in the Woodbine Mile. On Breeders' Cup Day she was very good. She put those fillies away and stayed to her task."

Trained by Bobby Frankel for Juddmonte Farms, Ventura has been no worse than third in seven starts in the United States. She is unbeaten in two starts on synthetic tracks, having also won the Grade 2 Madison Stakes at seven furlongs at Keeneland last April.

Similar to Gomez, Frankel was left delightfully stunned by Ventura's win in the Breeders' Cup. He just wished it would have led to a championship.

"A lot of people didn't see it," Frankel said. "It was the first [Breeders' Cup] race on Friday. You read all the articles about Zenyatta and Midnight Lute. Take nothing away from those horses, but she looked just as impressive."

Ventura tends to come from off the pace. There may not be many front-runners in the Santa Monica, which is run at seven furlongs. Indian Blessing would have set the pace.

Jibboom, owned by Juddmonte and trained by Frankel, may inherit the lead. The winner of the Grade 3 Monrovia Handicap on the hillside turf course on Jan. 3, Jibboom won the Grade 2 Raven Run Stakes at seven furlongs on a synthetic Polytrack surface at Keeneland in 2007.

"If Jibboom breaks good, she'll be on the pace," Frankel said. "She's a nice filly."

Gomez thinks he may have Ventura a little closer to the pace than normal.

"She doesn't have to come from far back as I had her in the Breeders' Cup," he said. "I want to get her in a rhythm. She'll be a little more fresh. I'll have to find a happy medium when she makes her run."

There are three other stakes winners in the field - Baroness Thatcher, Tizzy's Tune, and Wake Up Maggie - but they will be longshots. None won her last start.