INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The horses who have won four of the last five runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup are probable starters in Saturday's $100,000 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park.
But both Lava Man, the winner of the Gold Cup from 2005 through 2007, and Mast Track, the 2008 winner, have something to prove in the Grade 3 race over 1 1/8 miles.
Lava Man has not started since July 2008, when it was announced that he was retired after a career highlighted by wins in seven Grade 1 races. Lava Man underwent a stem cell procedure to restore cartilage in his ankles, and he was put back in training earlier this year. The Native Diver will be the first start of his comeback.
"You have to think he'll be a little rusty and it will take a race or two to be at his best," trainer Doug O'Neill said on Sunday.
Mast Track is winless in nine starts since the 2008 Gold Cup, including a loss by a nose in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar in August. Owned by the estate of Bobby Frankel and trained by Humberto Ascanio, Mast Track was second to Native Diver hopeful Neko Bay in an allowance race at Santa Anita on Oct. 9.
Sunday, Mast Track worked five furlongs in 1:00.40.
"I think he's still got it," Ascanio said. "He's pretty sound and pretty happy."
Ascanio dismisses Mast Track's last stakes appearance, a 12th in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in September, citing a lost shoe at the start of that race.
The Native Diver is the final graded stakes of the year for older males in California.
O'Neill has two other runners in the Native Diver - High Court Drama, who won his American debut in an allowance race at 1 1/8 miles on turf here Nov. 15, and Square Eddie, the winner of the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in October 2008 who is winless in his last five starts.
Neko Bay, sixth in the BC Dirt Mile on Nov. 7, is another probable starter, along with Tres Borrachos, Cigar Man, and Viscount.
Whatsthescript, eighth in the Breeders' Cup Mile on turf on Nov. 7, will pass the race in favor of the San Gabriel Handicap at Santa Anita on Dec. 27, trainer John Sadler said.
Long time coming for Zardana
Neko Bay is trained by John Shirreffs, who won Saturday's $150,000 Bayakoa Handicap with the longshot Zardana, a mare expected to start in Grade 1 races on Santa Anita's synthetic main track in early 2010.
Owned by Arnold Zetcher, Zardana made her first start on a synthetic track in nearly two years in the Grade 2 Bayakoa and scored the most prestigious win of her 17-race career.
The victory revived a campaign that had alternated between promising performances, including a win in the Swingtime Stakes on turf at Santa Anita in October, and a seventh-place finish in the Grade 2 Las Palmas Handicap at Santa Anita last month.
"For her to win a Grade 2 -- we always knew she had it in her," Zetcher said. "We've been waiting for something like this from her. It's nice to see it finally happen."
Shirreffs said he saw clues in Zardana's recent workouts that a switch to the main track could be effective.
"Her works have been very good," he said. "She's settling a little better. She can pull when she wants to."
Shirreffs is loaded with top-class older fillies and mares. Horse of the Year candidate Zenyatta just retired after an undefeated 14-race campaign, and the stable's leading older female is Life Is Sweet, who won the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at Santa Anita last month.
Both Life Is Sweet and Zardana could appear in the same races at Santa Anita, such as the $250,000 Santa Maria Handicap on Feb. 13 or the $250,000 Santa Margarita Invitational on March 13.
Caracortado yet to lose
Caracortado will end 2009 as an undefeated 2-year-old after winning an allowance race for statebreds over 6 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park on Sunday.
Trainer Mike Machowsky admits he is delaying the inevitable, testing the gelding around two turns. After Sunday's race, Machowsky said he would prefer to try Caracortado in a sprint stakes at Santa Anita in January, and then consider a race at a mile or farther.
"I don't know if he'll go two turns," Machowsky said. "I'll have to try it if he keeps winning."
In Sunday's race, Caracortado dueled for the lead under jockey Paul Atkinson and held off the filly Evening Jewel to win by 1 1/2 lengths, finishing in 1:16.20. Earlier this year, the colt won a maiden claimer at Fairplex Park and a starter allowance in the first week of the Hollywood Park fall meeting.