12/11/2009 1:00AM

West's handicap division lacks leader, depth

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PHOENIX - The East Coast and Midwest may be in for a treat in the handicap division come 2010. Top 4-year-olds like Quality Road, Vineyard Haven, Mine That Bird, Musket Man, Dunkirk, Friesan Fire, Girolamo, Regal Ransom, Blame, Charitable Man, Kensei, Imperial Council, Haynesfield, and of course Summer Bird, should he respond well to surgery, look ready to duke it out. Toss in proven elders like Macho Again, Etched, and Harlem Rocker and you have the makings of a division ripe for fireworks. And that doesn't even take into account where superstar filly Rachel Alexandra shows up.

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of such talent out West. In the biggest five races for older horses in Southern California in 2009, the Santa Anita Handicap was won by an invader (Einstein), the Hollywood Gold Cup was won by a horse now injured (Rail Trip), the Pacific Classic was won by a longshot (Richard's Kid, who at least remains in training), the Goodwood was won by a European import (Gitano Hernando), and the BC Classic was won by the great and now-retired mare Zenyatta.

Colonel John was unable to follow up his fine 3-year-old season and is now retired. A logical successor like Pioneerof the Nile was retired after being hurt in the spring. Albertus Maximus has just started back training after being sidelined by injury. I Want Revenge is nowhere to be found. Matto Mondo, hurt last spring when seemingly on the verge of becoming a "big" horse, has yet to show up on the work tab again. And Chocolate Candy, who seemed on the verge of breaking into the top ranks earlier in the year remains on that edge, maybe even having taken a step or two back.

As mentioned, Richard's Kid remains in training for Bob Baffert, and while unable to threaten monster Zenyatta in the BC Classic, his Pacific Classic win shows he's capable of big things on synthetic footing. He was to go in Saturday's 1 1/8-mile, Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood but will instead wait for the Santa Anita meet. Mast Track, winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in 2008, was entered in the Native Diver.

Papa Clem, who won the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby and was fourth in the Kentucky Derby, is working again and if all proceeds according to plan it's likely the son of Smart Strike will target Santa Anita's Strub Series for 4-year-olds, starting with the seven-furlong, Grade 1 Malibu on opening day, Dec. 26.

Another candidate did recently emerge. Misremembered, a 3-year-old who had done some good work but seemed on the fringes for Baffert, appears to have put his foot in the door. A strong second in Churchill's Grade 2 Clark Handicap shows he's got the quality to play with the big boys, on dirt or synthetic.

Maybe the most outlandish notion of all comes in the form of an 8-year-old returning from injury and stem-cell treatment. The once mighty Lava Man, who dominated the California scene for a couple seasons, has been working splendidly, according to reports. Trainer Doug O'Neill has sounded downright giddy that the veteran can come back and have a say in the division. His first step back was to be Saturday's Native Diver. But regardless of Saturday's result, is it fair or reasonable to believe that he can take up the mantle at his age, after the injury, and after the long vacation?

Rail Trip is supposed to return in the spring, but there's never a guarantee how they will come back from injury, and where does that leave the division during the Santa Anita meet?

Gio Ponti, who ran so well to be second to Zenyatta in the BC Classic, would have been a logical candidate to try the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap on the same track and at the same distance as his fine BC run. However, his connections are reportedly toying with the idea of going to Dubai for the rich Group 1 World Cup, also at 1 1/4 miles and on synthetic. Should he opt for the trip to the Middle East, it's doubtful he would be sent to Santa Anita for that big race just three weeks prior.

Gio Ponti and numerous other turf horses have successfully made the switch to synthetic footing. The Usual Q.T. looked super winning the Hollywood Derby and can obviously handle 1 1/4 miles. Being by all-purpose, top California-sire Unusual Heat there is no reason he shouldn't relish Southern California's synthetic tracks, too.

However, plans are for him to stay on turf, either in the Grade 2 San Marcos over 1 1/4 miles at Santa Anita on Jan. 18 or the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Turf for California-breds and Florida-breds at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 30, according to trainer Jim Cassidy.

Maybe someone will come out of the woodwork. It's happened before. Remember Farma Way? He wasn't even a blip on the radar when D. Wayne Lukas brought him back at Santa Anita in 1991, but he ran amok, winning multiple graded stakes and parlaying his huge Santa Anita season into a huge year overall.

But as things stand now, it's not just a division looking for a leader, it's looking for anyone.