Nasr el Arab, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s 4-year-old bay colt, was made the 5-2 morning line favorite Friday for Sunday’s $1-million Santa Anita Handicap.
Assigned post position seven at the mid-morning draw, the triple Grade I winner is one of three horses trained by Charlie Whittingham running in the 52nd Big ‘Cap. Stablemates Frankly Perfect and Payant were assigned post positions nine and two, respectively.
“They’re pretty much all easy horses to handle,” Whittingham said. “None of them was raced hard in their 3-year-old year, so they should all improve.”
The best of the trio is clearly Nasr el Arab, winner of the Oak Tree Invitational, the Carlton F. Burke Handicap and, in his first start on dirt, the Charles H. Strub Stakes by a convincing four lengths on Feb. 5.
The latter victory came on a muddy track, and predictions for Sunday were for a sunny sky and a fast track. Whittingham was not deterred by the forecast.
“Nasr el Arab ran very big in the mud the other day,” he said, “but I don’t think he needs the mud. I think it’s a better race for everybody if the track’s perfect. I don’t want anybody with a lot of excuses around.”
The second-favorite on the early line is the veteran Super Diamond, who finished a game third behind Kentucky Derby winners Alysheba and Ferdinand in the 1988 running of racing’s richest handicap. Trained by Eddie Gregson, the 9-year-old bay gelding is a 7-2 choice and will break from post position four.
“I feel very confident this year,” Gregson said. “It’s a bigger field and it’s got horses in it that are better than their press clippings. Horses are always dangerous when they’re in form or when they’re on the verge of improving.
“I think people are making a mistake looking at the race as being just between Charlie and me.”
The third choice in the field of 11 is Buckland Farm’s Cherokee Colony, who drew the outside hole and is 4-1 on the morning line. Trainer Chris Speckert is undismayed by being in post position 11. “It’s a long way ‘round,” he said, “and you can go anywhere you want being in the 11.”
The lesson is one he learned from Whittingham, who said: “I think in a mile-and-a-quarter race, post positions don’t mean a great deal. You can’t worry about post position because you get what you get.”
Speckert said Cherokee Colony, who was excellent in winning the San Carlos Handicap Jan. 14 after a nine-month layoff, then ran a disappointing third behind Super Diamond and Frankly Perfect in the Feb. 12 San Antonio Handicap, is in top shape.
“He looks superb,” he said. “He worked really great the other day and he came out of the work well. He’s ready to roll.”
The full Santa Anita Handicap field, in post-position order and with jockey and weight:
Stylish Winner, Corey Black, 112; Payant, Bill Shoemaker, 117; Good Taste, Sandy Hawley, 113; Super Diamond, Laffit Pincay, 122; Perceive Arrogance, Pat Day, 116; Stalwars, Jose Santos, 114; Nasr el Arab, Pat Valenzuela, 124; Martial Law, Martin Pedroza, 113; Frankly Perfect, Eddie Delahoussaye, 116; Triteamtri, Gary Stevens, 116, and Cherokee Colony, Chris McCarron, 119.