08/10/2008 11:00PM

Azul Leon faces keen competition


DEL MAR, Calif. - Azul Leon's leadership of the California 2-year-old division is open for revision Sunday at Del Mar, where nine colts and geldings will try knock him off in the Grade 2, $150,000 Best Pal Stakes.

Despite dominating the Hollywood Juvenile by four lengths last month, questions remain about Azul Leon's quality. The seven he beat in the Juvenile returned to lose easier races, going a collective 0 for 9 since then, while the field for the Best Pal includes several sharp maiden winners that will provide Azul Leon the stiffest challenge of his 2-for-2 career.

Kelly Leak scored a visually impressive debut win and is working sensationally at Del Mar; Captain Steel earned a lofty 96 Beyer Figure in his maiden victory; S.S. Stone fired first out with a rail-skimming finish that earned an 87 Beyer.

The 73 Beyer that Kelly Leak earned in his debut does not accurately reflect his ability, trainer Mike Machowsky said.

"I'm not a big Beyer guy," he said, adding his analysis is "more visual, that's what tells you."

It was hard not to be impressed with Kelly Leak's first start. Machowsky said he "did not have him cranked 100 percent" and the colt raced greenly. But he produced an extended run, and drew off by 1 1/4 lengths at only five furlongs.

The distance of the Best Pal benefits Kelly Leak, whose Polytrack works at Del Mar have been brilliant.

"He likes this track a lot," Machowsky said.

Kelly Leak worked three furlongs Thursday under Victor Espinoza, and drew the outside.

Conversely, speedball Captain Steel is stuck on the rail.

"I hate the draw," trainer Jeff Mullins said.

It means jockey Clinton Potts must let him rip.

"His only downfall is he is one-dimensional, and the one-hole is no time to change it," Mullins said.

Captain Steel won his second start by more than seven lengths, and if he clears again, the son of Hennessy could be gone.

In addition to Azul Leon, trainer Doug O'Neill also starts S.S. Stone, who won his debut rallying through a tight spot inside. Garrett Gomez picks up the mount on S.S. Stone; jockey Rafael Bejarano is obligated to stick with Azul Leon.

Charlie's Moment scored a July 26 upset in his first start since being gelded; Miguel's Mascot and Fu Peg He Rat won modest maiden races; Arlington maiden winner Coronet of a Baron has fast Del Mar works.