Smaller Big Cap remains good bet

In years past, the best handicap horses on the planet would be in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. Not anymore.

With the world’s richest purse ($6 million), the Dubai World Cup on March 29 at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse is the new spring target. And the world’s best horse, Curlin, prepped for it Thursday by easily winning the $175,000 Jaguar Trophy Handicap.

The 14 horses running in Saturday’s Big Cap are lucky Curlin is half a world away. Awesome Gem is the lukewarm favorite at 4-1 odds. If trainer Steve Asmussen had run Curlin in Arcadia instead of Dubai this week, his colt would have been favored at even money or less.

Admittedly the Big Cap field would have been a lot smaller, too. Trainers will avoid Curlin until he shows some sign of weakness.

The last two Big Caps were exciting wins by Lava Man, but he’s not here, either. The popular Cal-bred is getting a well-deserved vacation.

For those of us who view the glass as half full, the 14 horses that did show up make this the best betting race so far this year. Nary a horse in the field is a complete throwout.

Twelve of the 14 Big Cap horses are graded stakes winners. And in an era when horses are rushed to the breeding shed as soon as they can accomplish anything at all, it’s nice to see older horses still racing. Granted, six of the Big Cap horses are geldings.

The two most intriguing long shots in the field are Champs Elysees (10-1) and Student Council (12-1).

Champs Elysees has raced solely on grass in 13 lifetime starts. His trainer, Bobby Frankel, has a history of successfully switching Grade I grass horses on to the main track.

On class alone, Champs Elysees might be the best horse in the race.

Meanwhile, Student Council has turned his career around over the synthetic surfaces. His upset win in the 2007 Pacific Classic at Del Mar was against a field that looked a lot like this.

Many are downgrading his bad fifth-place finish his last time out in the San Antonio. But Student Council was clearly a short horse that day. His training routine was interrupted by multiple closures at Santa Anita. He should be a fitter animal Saturday.

And speaking of bad racetracks, let’s hope Santa Anita can avoid any more cancellations. Management intends to replace the mish-mash of a synthetic surface it now has for racing.

My vote would be for the Tapeta surface that proved itself through performance at Golden Gate Fields and Presque Isle Downs.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday. He can be reached at

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