08/07/2008 11:00PM

A Best Pal in the making?

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Holding a warm memory for Best Pal is kind of like voting for motherhood and apple pie. Who's going to argue? A gelding bred in California, Best Pal was brilliant at 2, less than two lengths away from winning the Kentucky Derby at 3, one of the best older runners in the country at 4 and 5, and good enough to win a major West Coast handicap at the age of 7.

The running of the Best Pal Stakes on Sunday at Del Mar provides a chance to kneel in the general direction of Golden Eagle Farm, the birthplace of Best Pal, located 25 miles east of the track. Best Pal is buried there beneath a big oak tree, a victim of a heart attack in November 1998, less than three years after he retired.

Fortunately, the standards he set still prevail. Only a handful of native Californians have measured up, led by modern Hall of Famers Swaps, Native Diver, and the recently inducted Ancient Title.

In 2007 at Del Mar, the California-bred gelding Georgie Boy appeared to be off and running to a Best Pal kind of career by winning the Graduation Stakes, finishing a good second in the Best Pal, and then winning the Del Mar Futurity. He returned earlier this year to win the San Vicente and San Felipe at Santa Anita before a muscle injury sent him to the sidelines, but he is galloping again for trainer Kathy Walsh and could return this fall.

If there is a budding Georgie Boy in this year's Best Pal, the choices are limited to Turbo Call, third in the Graduation Stakes at the meet, and Miguel's Mascot, winner of a maiden race on Del Mar's opening day. Turbo Call has not won a race since his two-furlong debut down the Santa Anita stretch last March, so good luck to him going the Best Pal's 6 1/2 furlongs. Miguel's Mascot, on the other hand, is clearly on the rise for his owners, Tom and Nancy Clark of Rancho San Miguel.

The Clarks have spent time in the news over the past year as part owners of Hystericalady, the daughter of Distorted Humor who came within a neck of beating Ginger Punch in the 2007 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Monmouth Park. This year, Hystericalady has won the Azeri at Oaklawn, the Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs, and the Delaware Handicap to maintain her spot among the big three of the division, along with Zenyatta and Ginger Punch.

Miguel's Mascot, homegrown and ambitiously named, carries on his young roan shoulders the hopes and dreams for the Clarks' freshman stallion Marino Marini. Nearly white and a son of Storm Cat - which sets him apart right there - Marino Marini was named for the famed Italian sculptor and raced for the Coolmore organization in Ireland before finishing his career in California.

Farm manager Clay Murdock shepherds a flock of young Marino Marinis at Rancho San Miguel, a lot of them out of mares purchased by the Clarks with their young stallion in mind. Miguel's Mascot is out of the Devil's Bag mare Lovely Pet, a half-sister to 2001 Test Stakes winner Victory Ride and the 1994 Hollywood Derby winner River Flyer, who raced for Golden Eagle Farm.

"A lot of his horses he stamps with color, which is no surprise," Murdock said of Marino Marini. "They're very precocious looking, with a big, strong hip. Kind of that Storm Cat look."

Trying to establish a California stallion in the current bloodstock climate is an uphill challenge, to say the least. So far, the Clarks have preferred to keep a good portion of their Marino Marinis to race.

"What we really wanted to do was have a little more control over this first crop," Murdock noted. "We wanted to make sure they got good chances with trainers that we trust."

"Miguel's Mascot seemed like he was going to be a little bit of a late bloomer anyway," Murdock went on. "We weren't exactly jumping up and down looking at him, although in the last nine months he's really taken off and developed into a nice-looking colt."

Miguel's Mascot is handled by Eric Kruljac, who is in the midst of a fine Del Mar meet with 4 wins from 10 starts through Thursday. When Miguel's Mascot won that Cal-bred maiden event on opening day, he set a track record of 1:04.48 for the 5 1/2 furlongs. No one was shocked, since the Polytrack surface had been tightened dramatically compared with its 2007 consistency, and the Rancho San Miguel folk didn't get much of a chance to pound their chests. The track record of Miguel's Mascot lasted less than a day.

Murdock is an Idaho native who dabbled as a Quarter Horse rider before he turned to farm management and has been with Rancho San Miguel since 1987. The Clarks purchased the farm in 2000.

"I guess you could say I was part of the package," Murdock said.

"What's really been fun is developing the career of a stallion like Marino Marini," he added. "I know our colt's got his work cut out for him Sunday. There's not only a couple pretty good ones in there, it's also deep. But Eric's never seemed to me to be the kind of trainer to just take a shot, so it'll be great if we can get a piece."