Strong Santa Anita fieldfeatures a Charm-ing rematch

Since the Great Depression, North America's most beautiful race track has been lifting the spirits of horseplayers in the waning days of winter. Santa Anita Park has showcased some of the century's greatest thoroughbreds in the Santa Anita Handicap.

Under the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, John Henry, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Alysheba, Round Table and Seabiscuit won the Big 'Cap ... while Citation, Olden Times and Native Diver tried but failed.

But in 61 runnings, only John Henry has taken consecutive runnings of the West's biggest race -- in 1981 and 1982 -- and the great gelding needed a disqualification of Perrault to repeat.

Four trainers have won two straight, but nobody has won three in a row, not even Charlie Whittingham, who retired the Big Cap trophy with nine wins.

On Saturday, 48-year-old Richard Mandella will go for the triple with Puerto Madero and Event of the Year in the 1ΒΌ-mile Grade I test.

In Mandella's way stands a pumped up Silver Charm, primed to avenge his upset loss to Puerto Madero on Jan. 30 in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. Free House, Silver Charm's gallant rival in the '97 Triple Crown series, will be there as well.

This should be good.

Puerto Madero, a 5-year-old Chilean-bred, originally was being pointed for the world's richest race, the $5-million Dubai World Cup on March 28. But Mandella and co-owner R.D. Hubbard decided to run him in the Big Cap because he's in such sharp form.

"Mentally, he's more involved in his races now," Mandella said Tuesday. "Last year, he'd break well, and then he'd take himself back and out of the race by giving up too much ground."

Puerto Madero, under rider Kent Desormeaux, worked out a perfect stalking trip and was much the best in the Donn. Silver Charm was stuck out in Post 12 and tried to rally wide on a speed-favoring track he didn't handle.

Jockey Gary Stevens is optimistic that the world's leading active money-winner will bounce back big time from that disheartening third-place finish.

The 5-year-old gray is a notoriously lazy workhorse, usually doing just enough to get by in the mornings. But he's turned in four quick training moves in the past month for trainer Bob Baffert, and on Monday he blazed through 5 furlongs in 57 seconds at Santa Anita, which means he should be wired and inspired on Saturday.

"He's doing as well right now as he ever has," Stevens said Tuesday. "That was a great workout. We were looking for something on the speedy side, and we got it. He's bouncing. He's very aggressive right now, which we haven't seen in a long time."

Post position won't be a problem in a small field. And don't expect Silver Charm to try to come from far back this time. He or Event of the Year probably will set the pace, with Puerto Madero and Free House not far away, followed by Dr Fong and Sidon.

Although Silver Charm and Puerto Madero will draw the most money and attention, Stevens doesn't think finishing ahead of the Donn winner will guarantee him a trip to the winner's circle. Not since the mid-80s has a Big Cap field been this deep.

Malek won the race last year when stablemate Gentlemen bled and ran last at odds of 1-20.

Free House has earned almost $2.5 million and is 2-for-7 against Silver Charm.

Event of the Year was among the favorites for last year's Kentucky Derby before he fractured a knee. He's 5-for-7 lifetime and coming off a win in the 1 1/8-mile Strub Stakes.

Dr Fong, a star in Europe, ran second in the Strub, his dirt debut.

"In recent years, it seemed that we'd have one superstar, or two top horses, or no outstanding horses," Stevens said. "I don't think you can take any of these horses lightly."

The 62nd Big Cap is the second race in the "NTRA Champions" series. Post time is approximately 5:40 ET.