Craig Family Trust's 4-year-old Kentucky homebred son of Candy Ride is the top weight in the field of 11 for the 74th Big 'Cap, but drew a relatively light impost of 122 pounds for Santa Anita Park's 1 1/4-mile signature test. His rivals will receive from four to 10 pounds.
Marty Wygod and Lane's End Farm are also co-owners of Twirling Candy.
The Santa Anita Handicap is the 10th race on an 11-race program that includes two other grade I events, the $250,000 Santa Anita Oaks (race 4) for 3-year-old fillies, and the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (race 9) on the turf. The Big 'Cap's probable post is 4:30 p.m. PST.
A confident John Sadler, looking for his first Big 'Cap win, trains Twirling Candy, who has won six of seven starts since debuting in November 2009. The powerful dark bay or brown colt started the Santa Anita meet with a track-record nose victory in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes (gr. I) Dec. 26. He clocked a time of 1:19.70 on a lightning-fast track and eclipsed the dirt mark set by Spectacular Bid of 1:20 in 1980.
If possible, he was even more impressive while toying with his Strub rivals, drawing off under a hand ride from Joel Rosario by 4 1/2 lengths while completing the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:46.53. Sadler said afterward, "I really feel this is the best horse in the country."
Twirling Candy romped in the nine-furlong Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT) last summer on turf and has also won twice on synthetic tracks. He is five-for-five with Rosario, who will have the mount again this time. Twirling Candy, who likes to stalk and pounce, will break from post 5.
The favorite has worked strongly for the Big 'Cap, including a seven-furlong move in 1:25 on the track Feb. 27. The biggest question mark, aside from his tendency to pull early, is the distance, which he has never tried. But then again, only one of his rivals, First Dude , has gone that far.
“He’s ready to go; he’s a wonderful horse,” Sadler said after Twirling Candy's final drill. “You’ve always got to run the race, but I wouldn’t trade horses with anybody else.”
Sadler, whose only previous entrant in the Big ’Cap was fifth-place Zappa in 2008, may well have the leading challenger to Twirling Candy in his own barn: Gladding, a wire-to-wire winner of the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 6.
Gladding, who was staked to a comfortable lead by jockey Rafael Bejarano in the San Antonio, his stakes debut, proved impossible to catch while winning by one length. After such a performance, the 4-year-old son of Sarava is not likely to get so easy a lead this time. Bejarano rides again.
Gladding is 6-1 on the morning line, the same as the 118-pound second highweight, Aggie Engineer, who looked like he might be the favorite for the Big 'Cap after rolling to a 3 1/4-length victory in the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) Jan. 8.
Ward and Roberta Williford's 6-year-old son of E Dubai lost quite a bit of support, however, after he ran third in the San Antonio as the 11-10 favorite for trainer Paddy Gallagher. Aggie Engineer, who will be ridden again by Joe Talamo, ran evenly while stalking Gladding through moderate fractions, but failed to muster the late kick he displayed in his previous three consecutive wins and was beaten by 2 1/4 lengths. He has yet to face Twirling Candy.
Gallagher, who has never had a starter in the Santa Anita Handicap, also entered Soul Candy, winner of the California Cup Classic last fall who is coming off a third-place finish in the Sunshine Millions Turf Jan. 29.
First Dude, at 5-1, is one of four entrants from trainer Bob Baffert, who won the Santa Anita Handicap last year with his homebred Misremembered as well as in 2000 with General Challenge. Baffert's other entrants are Spurrier, Tweebster, and Game On Dude, all pegged at 15-1 on the morning line. Only the legendary Charlie Whittingham, in 1976, ran as many horses in a Santa Anita Handicap.
Runner-up in last year's Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and third in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Donald Dizney's homebred has raced twice previously at 10 furlongs, finishing third in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), in which he set the pace. Previously trained by Dale Romans, the Stephen Got Even colt has demonstrated his competitiveness with 10 placings in 13 lifetime starts, but he has won just once.
First Dude began this year with a non-threatening fourth-place finish in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park as the 9-10 favorite. Martin Garcia is aboard.
Spurrier is another that has had trouble winning recently, finishing second in three successive graded stakes -- to Aggie Engineer in the Native Diver Handicap (gr. III) and San Pasqual and to Gladding in the San Antonio.
Tweebster, following a three-race win streak that began last fall, has been second to stablemate Indian Firewater in the San Fernando Stakes (gr. II) and to Twirling Candy in the Strub this year.
Game On Dude won a 1 1/6-mile optional claiming test Jan. 27 in his first start since running fourth in last June's Belmont.
$750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I, Race 10, 4:30 p.m.), 4 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Soul Candy (CA), G K Gomez, 114, P Gallagher
2. Spurrier (KY), A Quinonez, 115, B Baffert
3. Gladding (FL), R Bejarano, 117, J W Sadler
4. Pode Ir (BRZ), D R Flores, 112, A C Avila
5. Twirling Candy (KY), J Rosario, 122, J W Sadler
6. Setsuko (KY), V Espinoza, 112, R E Mandella
7. Quindici Man (KY), M A Pedroza, 115, C A Lewis
8. First Dude (FL), M Garcia, 116, B Baffert
9. Tweebster (KY), M E Smith, 116, B Baffert
10. Aggie Engineer (KY), J Talamo, 118, P Gallagher
11. Game On Dude (KY), J R Velazquez, 115, B Baffert