07/22/2002 12:00AM

Beach weather brings out the stars

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The cheery seaside atmosphere of Del Mar provides California racing with a clever appearance - fun and games at the beach, for seven weeks starting Wednesday.

A mild breeze drifts in from Pacific Ocean, and a lazy 2 p.m. Pacific post (4 p.m. Fridays) allows latecomers and afternoon simulcast bettors full access to the six-day-a-week racing schedule (Wednesday through Monday). Del Mar is a vacation postcard, with a twist - its most treasured attributes have four legs.

Each summer, the best horses in California produce the finest racing of the year. "At Del Mar, everyone comes to run," noted trainer Cliff Sise. His Rock Opera faces Mountain Rage on Wednesday in the stronger division (fifth race) of the $75,000 Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds on turf. The second division is the eighth race.

While the credentials of four-time stakes winner Mountain Rage are established, Del Mar is best symbolized each year by a fresh crop of 2-year-olds. Division highlights include the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity on closing day, Sept. 11, and the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante for fillies Aug. 31.

Familiar faces also resurface. Kona Gold, champion sprinter of 2000, seeks redemption Saturday in the six-furlong, Grade 2 Bing Crosby Handicap; female turf star Golden Apples returns Saturday in the Grade 1 Ramona Handicap. Beat Hollow, the country's top turf male, runs Sunday in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap.

The older horse division is focused on Aug. 25, date of the Grade 1 Pacific Classic. The $1 million race has been won six of 11 times by Bobby Frankel, though his current chances suffered a blow when Mizzen Mast was injured last week. Bob Baffert, leading Del Mar trainer the last five years, is pointing Congaree to the Pacific Classic. Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem is considered a possibility.

While stakes races command publicity, Del Mar's overnight program remains the backbone. At Del Mar, deeper fields lead to generous payoffs. The median win mutuel last year exceeded $9, the median pick four payoff was $1,277. Bettors supported racing last season by wagering more than $12 million daily; purse distribution last year was $514,107 daily.

An emerging trend has been the above-average performance of favorites, who have won 36 percent since 1997. The inclination will be tested Wednesday when Baffert-trained Mountain Rage starts as the solid Oceanside favorite. The mile turf race for 3-year-old attracted 15 entrants - seven in the first division, eight in the second. The race was split by necessity; the maximum number of starters in a Del Mar turf race is 10.

The Oceanside is the first leg of a three-race series for 3-year-olds on turf. The Grade 3 La Jolla is run Aug. 17, followed by the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby on Sept. 7.

Mountain Rage qualifies for the Oceanside by the narrowest of margins. Restricted to horses who have not won $50,000 (first prize) in 2002, Mountain Rage earned $49,230 winning his last start April 14; earned $47,460 winning March 14; and $46,110 winning Jan. 6. Owned by George Jacobs and Jill Moss, Mountain Rage has won 5 of 9 and earned $297,570. David Flores rides Mountain Rage.

Rock Opera may have been favored had he drawn into the second division of the Oceanside. "It's like night and day, they couldn't have made it any tougher," said trainer Sise, comparing the fifth and eighth races. Nevertheless, Sise suggests Rock Opera may be up the challenge. A winner of 2 of 3 starts, Rock Opera's June 15 win was flattered when runner-up Chiselling returned to win the Grade 3 Lexington in New York. Previously, Rock Opera finished third behind next-out stakes winners Regiment and Captain Squire.

"He's been around good horses, and he's better since his last start," Sise said. "The turns are a little tighter here than Hollywood, and he is on the outside [in a field of seven]." Laffit Pincay rides Rock Opera, whose rivals include Johar, Saphir Indien, Point Prince, Sunkosi, and Six Hitter.

While there has been discussion that some stables ran out of stock this summer at Hollywood, Del Mar secretary Tom Robbins said "in screening stall applications, there are fresh horses out there." They include some who ended up in the second division of the Oceanside. They are Mutinyonthebounty, a Group 2 winner last year in England, French shipper Dream Machine, and stakes-placed Holdthehelm.