Deep 14-Horse Field Set in Big 'Cap
Photo: Benoit
Strub winner Monterey Jazz is one of the highweights in a well-matched Santa Anita Handicap.
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Fourteen horses, potentially matching the largest field in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) in a quarter century, are headed for the $1 million event March 1 in a race that redefines "wide open."

Twelve of the contestants entered in the 1 1/4-mile event are weighted within four pounds of the 119-pound high weights, Monterey Jazz and Tiago. Awesome Gem is the tepid 4-1 morning line favorite.

This year's Santa Anita Handicap is presented by the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino.

Only once before in the past 25 years has the field size reached 14, which is now the maximum. That was in 2002 when Milwaukee Brew   won his first of consecutive runnings at odds of 9-2. Prior to that, the largest field was 17 in 1983 when Bates Motel was victorious at 7-2.

Trainer Craig Dollase holds a strong pair, led by the hard-knocking Awesome Gem, who developed into a synthetic track tyro last year, and the front-running Monterey Jazz (5-1), who tallied by 4 1/2 lengths in the Strub (gr. II) one month ago.

Others that have to be given utmost consideration are multiple grade I winner Tiago (6-1), who has earned $1,324,270 in his career; Go Between (6-1), winner of the Sunshine Millions Classic and Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott's first Big 'Cap starter; and grass specialist Champs Elysees (10-1), making his first start ever on a synthetic surface for Bobby Frankel. But a case can be made for almost every horse in the field.

The 5-year-old gelding Awesome Gem finished third behind Curlin and Hard Spun in last October’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I). After a freshening, the son of Awesome Again   tuned up for this spot with a solid third in the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) on Feb. 9.

“It was a very good comeback race,” said Dollase. David Flores rides the consistent performer whose 4-7-2 record in 16 starts has netted $1,161,360 for West Point Thoroughbreds.   

The 4-year-old Monterey Jazz has blossomed for Dollase after stretching out in his last three races with wire-to-wire victories, including the Sir Beaufort Stakes (g. IIIT) on turf before his loose-on-the-lead romp in the nine-furlong Strub on Feb. 2.

He left even-money choice Tiago in his wake that day and now has an opportunity to join 10 others -- including such luminaries as Spectacular Bid, Affirmed and Alysheba -- in winning both the Strub and Big 'Cap.

Russell Baze, who became the first rider in North America to win 10,000 races on Feb. 1 at Golden Gate Fields, climbs aboard Monterey Jazz for the partnership of A and R Stables and Class Racing. At 49, Baze will be riding in his first Santa Anita Handicap.

“He’s really improved immensely,” Dollase says of Monterey Jazz, who has earned $347,780 from a 5-0-3 record in 11 starts. The Thunderello colt was purchased for $65,000 two years ago.

Jerry and Ann Moss’ Tiago, a 4-year-old homebred son of Pleasant Tap, won a pair of grade I events at Santa Anita at 3 -- the Santa Anita Derby and Oak Tree’s Goodwood Stakes. Trained by John Shirreffs and ridden by Mike Smith, Tiago owns a 4-1-3 record in 11 races.

Go Between, whose prior success has been on turf, defeated Big 'Cap rival Celtic Dreamin by two lengths in the Sunshine Millions Classic at odds of 5-1 on Jan. 26. Owner/breeder Peter Vegso’s Florida-bred son of Point Given   has thrived in his two starts over synthetic surfaces. Before winning the Sunshine Millions, he captured the Fayette Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland last October. Garrett Gomez, the 2007 Eclipse Award winner who was aboard in the Sunshine Millions, has the return call on Saturday aboard the chestnut who has banked $1,003,880 from a 7-4-6 log in 22 starts.    

Frankel, who won back-to-back with Milwaukee Brew in 2002 and ’03, tries this time with British-bred Champs Elysees, a top grass campaigner in Europe before being shipped to the U.S. late last year. After winning the San Marcos (gr. IIT) at 1 1/4 miles over grass at Santa Anita on Jan. 19, Frankel aimed Juddmonte's royally-bred son of Danehill for the Big ’Cap.

“He trains good on the synthetic surface,” explained Frankel, “and the way this track is playing, I think he’s got a chance. His full brother is Dansili, one of the leading sires in Europe, and he’s the leading all-weather sire over there.”

The Juddmonte Farms homebred has posted a 3-5-3 record in 13 starts on turf for earnings of $400,647. Ramon Dominguez flies in from the East to ride.

$1 Million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I, Race 9, 4 p.m.), 4 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey, ML Odds
1 Champs Elysees (GB), 117, Ramon A. Dominguez, 10/1
2. Tiago (KY), 119, Mike E. Smith, 6/1
3. Big Booster (KY), 115, Michael C. Baze, 15/1
4. Medici Code (GB), 115, Martin A. Pedroza, 15/1
5. Awesome Gem (KY), 117, David R. Flores, 4/1
6. Monterey Jazz (KY), 119, Russell A. Baze, 5/1
7. Zappa (KY), 114, Joel Rosario, 15/1
8. Seminole Native (CA), 113, Jose Valdivia, Jr., 30/1
9. Celtic Dreamin (CA), 115, Alex O. Solis, 20/1
10. Heatseeker (IRE), 116, Rafael Bejarano, 8/1
11. Student Council (KY), 117, Richard Migliore, 12/1
12. Go Between (FL), 118, Garrett K. Gomez, 6/1
13. Great Hunter (PA), 115, Victor Espinoza, 8/1
14. Air Commander (KY), 116, Aaron T. Gryder, 20/1

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