INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Heatseeker has made a steady rise to the top of the California handicap division in the last six months. Staying there will require a win in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park on Saturday.
Already this year, Heatseeker has won the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap in March and the Grade 2 Californian Stakes in May. If Heatseeker can win the Gold Cup, he will strengthen his role as the leading California hope for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.
The key to Heatseeker's success is not a certain style of running, such as the need to be in front or make a big rally from off the pace. It's a more low-key factor, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said.
"Consistency, with the way he trains and races," Hollendorfer said. "I think he has always had that potential. He seems to have found himself."
Heatseeker is the 123-pound topweight in the Gold Cup, which is run over 1 1/4 miles on the Cushion Track and has drawn an outstanding field of 10. The Gold Cup is the 10th race on an 11-race program that features four stakes and a guaranteed pick six pool of $500,000. First post is noon Pacific.
Heatseeker will be a strong favorite in a field that includes Tiago, who beat Heatseeker by a head in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap in April; Student Council, the winner of the Pimlico Special in May; and Go Between, a game second to Heatseeker in the Santa Anita Handicap.
The others entrants are Perfect Drift, the 9-year-old gelding with career earnings of more than $4.6 million; the 2008 stakes winners Big Booster and McCann's Mojave; and the outsiders Mast Track, Racketeer, and Spice Route.
Heatseeker, who races for William de Burgh, could be anywhere in the field as the race unfolds. In the Big Cap, which had 14 starters, Heatseeker rallied from fourth to take the lead in the final furlong. In the Californian, against only three rivals, Heatseeker dragged jockey Rafael Bejarano to the lead along the rail on the backstretch and pulled away through the final furlong to win by 5 1/4 lengths, the widest winning margin of his career.
"I'd prefer to sit off the pace," Hollendorfer said.
The style of the Californian win left Hollendorfer stunned. Heatseeker had lost by a head to Tiago in the Oaklawn Handicap in their previous start, but left Tiago languishing in his wake in the Californian.
"I just think he got a hold of the track really well," Hollendorfer said. "Some of the others looked like they were struggling. I didn't think he'd win like that, no.
"I think he's been good all along this year. Everyone hopes they have a horse with more to find. He's doing well, so we're not worried about that right now."
Hollendorfer has never won the Gold Cup, but was second by a nose when Ace Blue finished behind Lava Man in 2006.
If Heatseeker is beaten, bettors will expect the winner to be Go Between, Student Council, or Tiago.
Go Between has not started since finishing second after a wide trip in the Grade 3 Ben Ali Handicap at Keeneland on April 20. Trainer Bill Mott said earlier this week that he is concerned that Go Between's three workouts at Belmont Park in June will leave him shy of his best condition.
Student Council won the Pimlico Special in the mud last month, and was sixth in the Big Cap. Now trained by Steve Asmussen, Student Council won the Pacific Classic in a 23-1 upset last August when trained by Vladimir Cerin.
Tiago is still the last horse to beat Heatseeker, in the Oaklawn Handicap. In the Californian, run under allowance conditions, Tiago carried 126 pounds to Heatseeker's 122 pounds. The roles have been reversed in the Gold Cup, a handicap. Tiago carries 121 pounds.
Heatseeker's win left Tiago's trainer, John Shirreffs, impressed.
"Heatseeker opened up on everyone and we couldn't catch him," he said. "I hope he's not able to do that again."
Earlier this week, Shirreffs watched Tiago gallop strongly, leaving an exercise rider holding a firm grip to prevent the 4-year-old from doing too much in his daily exercise.
"He's been pretty tough," Shirreffs said. "He's a very strong horse."
Tiago and the other runners will need to be strong to have any chance in the Gold Cup. As recent races have shown, beating Heatseeker is not an easy job.