ARCADIA, Calif. -- Before his disappointing race in the Goodwood Stakes last fall, it appeared that Twirling Candy was headed to the Breeders' Cup, with either the Dirt Mile or the Classic a viable option. But his camp regrouped after that setback, setting their goals farther down the road.
That one misstep must have left bettors anxious, though, because when Twirling Candy reappeared in the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on opening day, Dec. 26, he was a fat 7-2, the biggest price of his career. Fat chance of that happening again any time soon.
In the Malibu, Twirling Candy re-established his position as one of the most talented horses in training. He ran down sprint specialist Smiling Tiger, wiped Spectacular Bid's seven-furlong track record off the books, and recorded his fifth win in six starts. So, when Twirling Candy goes to the post Saturday in the Grade 2, $200,000 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, he once again will be a short price, a familiar spot for most of his career.
Twirling Candy heads a field of eight in the 1 1/8-mile Strub, the final leg of a three-race series for 4-year-olds. The Malibu is the opening leg. Twirling Candy was kept out of the second leg, the 1 1/16-mile San Fernando Stakes, because his trainer, John Sadler, wanted to give him more time until the Strub, knowing full well that a win Saturday would require Twirling Candy to come back in four weeks for the Santa Anita Handicap, a race in which he has to be considered, right now, the ante-post favorite.
"I don't want to say anything about that until after Saturday," Sadler said Thursday morning. "I'm kind of superstitious."
The Strub comes up well for Twirling Candy. Indian Firewater, starting just to his left, looks like the only other legitimate speed in the race. Twirling Candy should get a perfect stalking trip, provided he does not pull, something at which he has improved since last summer. Joel Rosario, unbeaten in four races with Twirling Candy, has the mount.
"Joel comes out and works him all the time," Sadler said. "He has a lot of confidence in him. He relaxes very well for him. Style-wise, he should be able to stalk, lay second with one target."
That target, Indian Firewater, represents the first half of a tag team for trainer Bob Baffert. Indian Firewater just did hold off stablemate Tweebster in the San Fernando. In the Strub, though, Indian Firewater will have Twirling Candy breathing down his neck. The rapidly improving Tweebster, compromised in the San Fernando by a track that did not flatter his late-running style, might have a better chance than Indian Firewater this time around.
"It depends on the pace," Baffert said Thursday morning. "There's probably an advantage to Tweebster if they're on the engine, really motoring. He was a light, gangly 2-year-old. He's coming into his own now."
Tweebster did not earn a maiden win until his eighth start last fall. The San Fernando very nearly was his fourth straight victory.
"You could have separated them with a credit card at the wire," Baffert said. "They both came out of the race well. But it's hard to get excited with Twirling Candy in there."
Do It All (third), Paris Vegas (fifth), and Make Music for Me (seventh) are all hoping to improve upon their performances in the San Fernando.
The lightly raced Honour the Deputy is making his first start on this circuit, in a stakes race, and for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer after winning 3 of 4 in Maryland.
Oilisblackgold is making his stakes debut. He is still eligible to a first-level allowance race.