08/28/2009 11:00PM

Black Astor facing heat for the lead

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Did the gelding Black Astor get lucky, or did he get good?

It is the key question Sunday at Del Mar, where a group of veterans will run 1 3/8 miles on grass in the Grade 2, $250,000 Del Mar Handicap. The winner receives an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Turf as part of the Win and You're In program.

Trainer Lisa Lewis was not thinking Breeders' Cup back in January, when she decided Black Astor needed a break.

"He's a high-strung horse and takes a lot out of himself," she said. "He'd gotten light, and our hope was that he could come back stronger."

Six months later, Black Astor did just that. Lewis entered him in the Grade 2, 1 1/2-mile Sunset for his first start back at Hollywood Park.

Black Astor and rider Joe Talamo shook loose in the four-horse field and raced wire to wire. Pure luck? Hardly. Circumstances, however, are less favorable Sunday in the Del Mar Handicap, where Black Astor meets at least two other front-runners.

The allowance horse Temple City and claiming-caliber Ghetto may apply pressure on Black Astor, a 4-for-16 gelding who enters the fall season as a fresh horse on his way up. If he handles the heat, Black Astor can defeat a veteran field that includes the race's 2008 winner, Spring House, as well as Artiste Royal, Obrigado, and Porfido.

Lewis said strategy is up to Black Astor's jockey. "I don't think we can tell him to grab him, but you can't tell him to gun him either," Lewis said. Talamo already has won three races on Black Astor, and though the pace dynamics pose a challenge he faces an aging field Sunday that is less than world-class.

Spring House is no spring chicken. "He's the same age as me," trainer Julio Canani said jokingly. "We're both on social security." Not true. Canani is 70, and Spring House is only 7.

Despite a two-length defeat in the Sunset, Canani is convinced Spring House has improved since. And he loves Del Mar.

"I think he's going to run like he ran last year in the same race," Canani said.

Artiste Royal drops from the best races. Longshot candidate Sir Dave returns to grass. Others include Unusual Suspect, Racketeer, Itsnotjustagame, and Quarter Moon.