Big Chance for Whilly in Wide Open San Gabriel

Triple B Farms' Whilly, who won a pair of grade II races in front-running fashion in 2005 for trainer Doug O'Neill and jockey Felipe Martinez, can start the new year in the same way in the San Gabriel Handicap (gr. IIT) on the Santa Anita Park grass Sunday.

The 1 1/8-mile test for older horses drew a field of 10 loaded with question marks. The Irish-bred Whilly figures to be able to dictate the pace, a scenario that led to a couple of surprises when the 5-year-old son of Sri Pekan refused to give in. He won both the American Invitational Handicap (gr. IIT) on the Hollywood Park lawn in July and the San Marcos Handicap (gr. IIT) on the Santa Anita sod last January.

Whilly is making his first start since finishing second in the Clement L. Hirsch (gr. IIT) at Oak Tree, but was disqualifed to fifth for drifting in late. However, he has never run on dirt, which is a strong possibility with rain expected in Southern California this weekend.

Darrell Vienna has two horses making their initial starts in Southern California. The Irish-bred Atlando closed gamely to win Belmont Park's Knickerbocker Handicap (gr. IIIT) by a neck Oct. 30 shortly after owner Gary Tanaka transferred the son of Hernando from France.

Atlando worked five furlongs on Santa Anita's firm turf course Wednesday in 1:01 4/5.

Vienna's other starter is the Argentine-bred Don Icauto, who comes off of two group I wins in his native country but has not been to the post since March 12. Illness delayed his U.S. debut.

A pair of graded stakes winners, Robert Bone's Choctaw Nation and Sarah and Ken Ramsey's Badge of Silver, make their initial starts on the turf.

Trained by Jeff Mullins, the closer Choctaw Nation is a two-time winner of the San Diego Handicap (gr. II) at Del Mar and is coming off a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I) Oct. 29, beaten 6 1/4 lengths by Saint Liam. Choctaw Nation breezed five furlongs on the turf Wednesday in 1:01 under hot jockey Victor Espinoza, who has the mount Sunday.

Bobby Frankel sends out Badge of Silver, who won the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) in March but ended the year on a sour note with an eighth-place finish as the favorite in the Hill 'n' Dale Cigar Mile (gr. I), 13 1/2 lengths behind Purge. The 6-year-old son of Silver Deputy has won six of 13 on the dirt and is reportedly headed for retirement after the San Gabriel.

Frankel also saddles Burning Sun, out of action since March, who has been disappointing since winning his U.S. debut in February 2004 after racing in England.

Stonestreet Stables' Rhythm Mad, trained by Richard Mandella, makes his first start since winning the 2004 Jim Murray Handicap 20 months ago.

"He hasn't run in a long time and I've never run him before," said Mandella, who takes over training from Bruce Headley. "I'm guessing he'd need to get a race in him to get on his best footing, but he's ready to get started."

The stakes winning Toasted also returns from a lengthy layoff for trainer Laura de Seroux. The 5-year-old son of Hennessy won the Arlington Classic (gr. IIT) in a romp in 2004, but has been on the sidelines since a close fifth-place finish in the Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIT) Sept. 4, his only race in the past 16 months.

$150,000 San Gabriel Handicap (gr. IIT, Race 8, 4:08 p.m.), 4 & up, 1 1/8 miles (turf)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Estevan (KY), 115, Jon K. Court
2. Rhythm Mad (FR), 117, Alex O. Solis
3. Hendrix (KY), 114, Corey S. Nakatani
4. Burning Sun (KY), 115, Garrett K. Gomez
5. Badge of Silver (KY), 118, Patrick A. Valenzuela
6. Whilly (IRE), 117, Felipe F. Martinez
7. Atlando (IRE), 116, Martin A. Pedroza
8. Choctaw Nation (KY), 116, Victor Espinoza
9. Toasted (KY), 117, Jose Valdivia, Jr.
10. Don Incauto (ARG), 117, David R. Flores