09/27/2007 12:00AM

West Coast crown up for grabs in Goodwood

EmailIt's a new era for older horses on the main track in Southern California. The lengthy reign of Lava Man may be coming to an end, courtesy of the mandated move to synthetic surfaces at all three major racetracks on the circuit.

Who will now wear the crown?

At Del Mar, in the Pacific Classic, it went to Student Council. But he has been sent out of town Saturday for the Hawthorne Gold Cup, leaving several horses who chased him, plus some promising newcomers, ready to battle in the Grade 1, $500,000 Goodwood Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

Lava Man, who was sixth last time out in the Pacific Classic on Polytrack, was entered in the 1 1/8-mile Goodwood, but his trainer, Doug O'Neill, said Thursday he was "90-percent sure" Lava Man would await next week's Grade 2, $250,000 Oak Tree Mile on the turf. If Lava Man is scratched, that would leave a field of nine, headed by Awesome Gem, the runner-up to Student Council in the Pacific Classic, and the 3-year-old Tiago, who will be facing older horses for the first time.

The new Cushion Track surface at Santa Anita lured Lewis Michael from his home base of Chicago, where he romped in the Washington Park Handicap on Arlington Park's Polytrack surface two months ago. There also could be sentiment for Arson Squad, who won the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita earlier in the year and will try to return to his best form after struggling on Polytrack at Del Mar.

The winner of the Goodwood gets an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Classic through the "Win and You're In" program. The Goodwood is the ninth race on a 10-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m. Pacific on Saturday. It is one of three Grade 1 races on the card. The best of the three might be the Yellow Ribbon Stakes, for female turf runners, which has an attractive match between Citronnade and the unbeaten Nashoba's Key. That is the third race of the day. The day's seventh race is the Oak Leaf Stakes, for 2-year-old fillies, featuring Del Mar Debutante winner Set Play, Landaluce Stakes winner The Golden Noodle, and highly regarded Cry and Catch Me and Tasha's Miracle.

Even though he is racing against older horses, Tiago could be the one to beat in the Goodwood because of the unsettled nature of the West's older horses. Tiago has not raced since winning the Swaps Stakes on July 14 on a Cushion Track surface at Hollywood Park. He was entered in the Pacific Classic, but skipped it because trainer John Shirreffs was apprehensive about racing him on Polytrack.

Shirreffs still has some trepidation running over Cushion Track, despite Tiago's win in the Swaps. Earlier this year, Tiago won the Santa Anita Derby, but that was on the old dirt surface that was replaced during the summer. According to Shirreffs, Tiago has trained brilliantly in recent weeks on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park. A strong performance in the Goodwood will send Tiago to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27.

"The Breeders' Cup will be his last race of the year," Shirreffs said.

Under the weight-for-age conditions of the race, Tiago carries 121 pounds, three fewer than his older rivals.

Awesome Gem closed sharply for second in the Pacific Classic, which continued an improving form pattern for Awesome Gem since he began racing on synthetic surfaces. In four starts at Hollywood Park and Del Mar since May, he has never finished worse than second.

Craig Dollase, Awesome Gem's trainer, said he was "ecstatic" with Awesome Gem's performance in the Pacific Classic.

"I wish he would have won, but I thought he ran light's out," Dollase said Thursday morning. "He was just second best. He just ran out of yardage. It was a tough beat.

"He's been training super coming into this race. He trains very well at Hollywood Park, which is Cushion Track, and now they have Cushion Track at Santa Anita."

Lewis Michael has a sneaky upset chance. He won a pair of races 13 days apart at Arlington by a combined margin of 11 3/4 lengths in July. The new synthetic era in California lured him here instead of running on conventional dirt in the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

"We wanted to keep him on a synthetic surface, and we wanted to give him a chance to win a Grade 1 race," Wayne Catalano, the trainer of Lewis Michael, said Thursday morning. "He's done very well since he got here."