ARCADIA, Calif. (March 2, 2011) – Twirling Candy, who has swiftly become recognized as the nation’s premier Thoroughbred racehorse following the retirement of Zenyatta, will be heavily favored to endorse that distinction in Saturday’s 74th running of the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino.

The Big ’Cap, Santa Anita’s signature race at the classic distance of 1 ¼ miles, is one of three Grade I stakes races to be presented on an 11-race program with first post at 12 noon. Rags-to-riches California-bred Caracortado heads the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile on turf, and the $250,000 Santa Anita Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles features Grade I winners A Z Warrior, Turbulent Descent and Zazu.

But it is Twirling Candy who will be the racing world’s focus as the 4-year-old son of Craig’s brilliant Candy Ride has begun to evoke some of the sort of early buzz that once surrounded the great race mare, Zenyatta. High weighted at 122 pounds, he is the overwhelming 4-5 morning line favorite among 11 entrants in the event that offered racing’s first $100,000 purse in its 1935 inaugural.

Trained by John Sadler and to be ridden by Joel Rosario, Twirling Candy began the Santa Anita season by breaking the track record for seven furlongs while winning the Grade I Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26 in a torrid 1:19 3/5. “When you’re on the best horse like Twirling Candy,” commented Rosario, “it’s no surprise that he ran that fast.”

The bay colt, bred in Kentucky by Jenny Craig and her late husband, Sidney, returned with a virtual romp in the historic Grade II Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds. He was hand ridden by Rosario to a 4 ½-length triumph, stopping the clock for 1 1/8 miles in 1:46.20.

At 54, Sadler, who has been training Thoroughbreds for 30 years, is enjoying a banner meet, having won eight graded stakes at the current stand. The former show horse rider is focused on keeping his excitement in check.

“My job is just to be a good steward and take good care of him because he’s a natural runner,” Sadler said following Twirling Candy’s Strub sizzler. “My only concern is that I do a good job because I really feel this is the best horse in the country.

“He’s a really good horse, so I feel a strong sense of stewardship, that I do the right things and pick the races carefully. I just don’t want to make any mistakes because he is that good.”

While winning 6 of 7 career starts and earning $597,900, Twirling Candy experienced one setback. After four successive victories by a total of 17 lengths, he faltered as the 7-10 favorite last Oct. 10 in Oak Tree’s Grade I Goodwood Stakes at Hollywood Park. Twirling Candy finished fourth after being rank and refusing to cooperate with jockey Mike Smith.

“He just wasn’t himself that day,” Sadler said, “and he was kind of crampy after the race.” As a result, Breeders’ Cup plans were scrapped and nearly three months of down time seemed the cure-all. Twirling Candy has worked splendidly in preparation for the Big ’Cap. “He’s ready to go,” said Sadler following a seven-furlong drill in 1:25 flat on Sunday. “Geez, what a horse,” the trainer added, as if anyone needed much convincing.

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 Grade II San Antonio Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 11.

A private purchase by C R K Stable’s Lee and Susan Searing not long after a 17 ¼ length maiden win at Calder Racecourse in his seventh start, Gladding became two-for-two for Sadler when defeating Big ’Cap opponents Spurrier and favored Aggie Engineer in the San Antonio. Leading rider Rafael Bejarano will be back aboard the Florida-bred gelding on Saturday. Gladding was weighted at 117 pounds and is 6-1 on oddsmaker Jon White’s morning line.

Aggie Engineer, who will carry 118 pounds including jockey Joe Talamo, is one of two entrants trained by Irish-born Paddy Gallagher, who, at 54, has never before had a runner in the Santa Anita Handicap. Gallagher also saddles Soul Candy, who last October won the California Cup Classic.

Prior to being unable to catch Gladding in the San Antonio when hampered by extremely moderate fractions, Aggie Engineer had reeled off three straight victories for Ward and Roberta Williford, of Dallas, Texas. Included were Santa Anita’s Grade II San Pasqual Stakes by 3 ¼ lengths and the Grade III Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park by 1 ¾ lengths.

A 6-year-old gelded son of E Dubai, Aggie Engineer has run well over any surface while posting a career record of 7-4-3 in 18 races for earnings of $376,280. He was pegged at 6-1 on the morning line.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who gained his second Big ’Cap victory with Misremembered last year, will attack this year’s running from four angles with 5-1 First Dude, 15-1 Game On Dude, 15-1 Spurrier, and 15-1 Tweebster. Only the legendary Charlie Whittingham, in 1976, ever ran as many horses in a Santa Anita Handicap. Whittingham, who won the classic race nine times from 66 career starters, could do no better than a seventh-place finish with Top Command in ‘76.

First Dude, who will be making his first start for Baffert, is the most compelling of his quartet. In terms of earnings, Donald R. Dizney’s homebred son of Stephen Got Even is far and away the most accomplished runner in the field after having nailed down paychecks worth $895,160. First Dude came within two lengths of winning two legs of last year’s Triple Crown. Yet the 4-year-old bay colt has won but a single race.

Based in the East for trainer Dale Romans, First Dude compiled a record of 1-5-4 in 13 races that included seven Grade I competitions. He was beaten by less than a length when second to Looking At Lucky in the Preakness. He crossed the finish line third, one length behind victorious Drosselmeyer, in the Belmont Stakes after leading into deep stretch.

First Dude was transferred to Baffert’s barn earlier this year following a non-threatening fourth-place finish in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park as the 9-10 favorite. Baffert is delighted by his progress and has given Martin Garcia the mount.

The complete field for the Santa Anita Handicap, with jockeys, weights and morning line odds in post position order: Soul Candy, Garrett Gomez, 114, 30-1; Spurrier, Alonso Quinonez, 115, 15-1; Gladding, Rafael Bejarano, 117, 6-1; Pode Ir, David Flores, 112, 50-1; Twirling Candy, Joel Rosario, 122, 4-5; Setsuko, Victor Espinoza, 112, 30-1; Quindici Man, Martin Pedroza, 115, 30-1; First Dude, Martin Garcia, 116, 5-1; Tweebster, Mike Smith, 116, 15-1; Aggie Engineer, Joseph Talamo, 118, 6-1, and Game On Dude, Jesus Velazquez, xx108, 15-1.

Nominated to the Big ’Cap, Caracortado would have been the co-second high weight behind Twirling Candy, but the 4-year-old gelding’s strong victory in the Jan. 29 Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita dictated an immediate grass future beginning with the Kilroe Mile.

“I’d say he’s more effective on grass, probably because of his turn of foot, the way he accelerates,” noted trainer, co-owner and breeder Mike Machowsky. “He’s a freak on turf and has such a tremendous turn of foot,” commented his rider, Talamo.

Under Talamo, the unfashionably-bred son of Cat Dreams closed from 9 ½ lengths back to take the Sunshine Millions event by one-half length as the third choice at 3-1 odds. Jeranimo, the 7-5 favorite, wound up fourth. It was Caracortado’s second win in as many races on turf.

Caracortado will break from post position No. 4 among 10 competitors in the 52nd running of the Kilroe. Caracortado scored his first win in his racing debut, a $40,000 claimer at Fairplex Park in September of 2009. It was the first of five straight victories climaxed by the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Caracortado has earned $491,520 from 7 wins in 11 starts for Machowsky and Mr. and Mrs. Don Blahut. “He’s one of those horses that gets better as he gets older,” said Machowsky. “But I never expected him to accomplish what he has so far.”

Jeranimo will seek redemption against Caracortado with David Flores taking over in the saddle. The 5-year-old son of Congaree, trained by Michael Pender for B. J. Wright, dominated Santa Anita’s Grade II San Gabriel Stakes on turf last Dec. 27 after previously beating Kilroe rival Fluke in an allowance race.

Bejarano, who rode Jeranimo in the Sunshine Millions Turf, found the dull fourth hard to explain. “He was kind of flat,” Bejarano said. “Maybe he was bleeding on the inside. . .maybe that’s why he was flat.” Pender is pleased with Jeranimo’s preparations for the Kilroe. Breaking from post No. 9, Jeranimo will be attempting to build on earnings of $450,400 from a 5-3-2 record in 16 starts.

With Talamo retaining the mount on Caracortado, he will be replaced by Bejarano aboard Fluke. No worse than second in his last seven starts, the 6-year-old Brazilian-bred lifted his trainer, Humberto Ascanio, out of a 46-race dry spell with a dogged win in the Grade III Thunder Road Handicap at Santa Anita on Feb. 5.

Ascanio is the former long-time aide to Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel. Eleven days after Frankel’s death due to lymphoma on Nov. 16, 2009. Ascanio won Hollywood Park’s Grade I Citation Handicap with Fluke at odds of 9-1. Fluke’s next three races resulted in seconds including a nose loss to Proviso in last year’s Kilroe. Fluke, who has earned $457,948 from a 6-6-0 record in 15 starts for owner Patricia Bozano, drew post position No. 2.

The complete field for the Kilroe Mile, with jockeys and weights in post position order: Liberian Freighter, Garcia, 118; Fluke, Bejarano, 118; Acclamation, Christian Santiago Reyes, 120; Caracortado, Talamo, 118; Square Eddie, Rosario, 118; Sebastian Flyte, Gomez, 118; Lieve, Corey Nakatani, 118; Times Gone By, Espinoza, 118; Jeranimo, Flores, 118, and Gallant Son, Smith, 118.

Sadler, whose horses won three graded stakes on Santa Anita’s opening day, Dec. 26, and another pair on Feb. 5, will be in search of a Grade I double on Saturday. In addition to Twirling Candy, he will send out Zazu, a leading contender among five entrants in the 72nd running of the Santa Anita Oaks.

The gray daughter of Tapit, owned by Jerry and Ann Moss who raced Zenyatta, had done relatively little in her first four starts before bursting into prominence over Santa Anita’s new dirt surface early this year. After her closing surge fell a neck short in the Grade II Santa Ynez Stakes, Zazu finished strongly to upend 2-5 favorite Turbulent Descent in the Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes at one mile on Feb. 5. Her second win in six starts elevated her earnings to $240,985. She was purchased as a yearling by the Mosses for $285,000.

With Rosario aboard, Zazu’s 1 ¼-length victory terminated Turbulent Descent’s unbeaten status that included wins in Hollywood Park’s Grade I Starlet and Moccasin Stakes with Zazu finishing fifth and second, respectively. “She has a short run and she wants to close,” Sadler said following Zazu’s breakout showing in the Las Virgenes. “In some of those other races, it hadn’t played that way.”

Mike Puype, who trains Turbulent Descent for Blinkers On Racing Stable and partners, accepted the setback without great concern. “She hasn’t run in eight weeks,” Puype said afterward. “She probably got a little tired. It was a good race. She just got outrun today.” The Florida-bred daughter of Congrats, who has earned $378,350, has been working swiftly for the rematch. Flores will be back in the irons.

The other Grade I winner in the Oaks mix is A Z Warrior, trained by Baffert for Zayat Stables. The homebred daughter of Bernardini has not raced since fading to 12th and last at 4-1 odds in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5.

A Z Warrior has put together a series of fast works for her return and will be ridden for the first time by Bejarano. Her Grade I victory preceded the Breeders’ Cup failure when A Z Warrior captured Belmont Park’s Grade I Frizette at one mile. Her 2-1-0 record in five starts has generated earnings of $239,600.

Baffert also has entered Kaleem Shah’s May Day Rose, a front-runner who likely will assure a solid pace with Martin Garcia in the saddle. May Day Rose went wire-to-wire in winning Santa Anita’s Grade II Santa Ysabel Stakes on Jan. 9. Her earnings have reached $199,555 from a 3-1-0 mark in six races.

The complete field for the Santa Anita Oaks, with jockeys in post position order (each entrant carries 122 pounds): May Day Rose, Garcia; Zazu, Rosario; Turbulent Descent, Flores; Kilograeme, Gomez, and A Z Warrior, Bejarano.

The Santa Anita Handicap has been carded as the 10th race with an approximate post of 5:10 p.m. The Kilroe Mile goes as the ninth with the Santa Anita Oaks to be contested as the fourth race.