07/25/2009 12:00AM

Bold Chieftain still classy, but vulnerable


DEL MAR, Calif. - Bold Chieftain practically owns the California Dreamin' Handicap, a $100,000 stakes for California-breds he has won the past two summers at Del Mar.

But early this week, trainer Bill Morey Jr. offered a candid evaluation regarding the 6-year-old veteran, who will be favored Sunday to end a one-year drought that stretches over eight races.

"He's been knocking on the door," Morey said. "But a couple horses beat him this year that he would have beaten a year or two ago. I believe since the Breeders' Cup that he has lost a step."

That lost step is one that most of the nine others in the California Dreamin' field never had to begin with. And even if Bold Chieftain is vulnerable as the 123-pound top weight, the 11-for-28 veteran remains the horse to beat. Again.

"To be able to come back three years in the same race, that doesn't happen very often," Morey said. "He's such a striking horse out there because of his color - he's just about [pure] black."

Bold Chieftain was at the top of his game a year ago when he defeated three rivals; the 2009 California Dreamin' field is tougher. Stakes winner Unusual Smoke drops and returns to grass, while front-runners Dewey's Special and Crafty Power insure a swift pace in the 1 1/16-mile race.

Garrett Gomez rides Bold Chieftain, whose last eight starts include four seconds, two thirds, and an eighth in the Breeders' Cup Mile. Bold Chieftain has earned $917,411, and was aiming to this Sunday's stakes even before finishing second in his most recent start July 5 on a speed-favoring dirt track at Pleasanton.

If the favorite is vulnerable, Unusual Smoke can post an upset. Overmatched in the Grade 2 Californian at Hollywood Park, he finished behind Bold Chieftain one back at Golden Gate.

Unusual Smoke "is not a good shipper," trainer A.C. Avila said. "Now he's fresh, he's happy." Winner of the $150,000 Khaled Stakes three starts back, Unusual Smoke also figures for a good trip.

"I can sit behind the two speeds, sit third, make a run, and try to hold off that old pro from up north," Avila said. Claimed by Avila for $12,500 in January, Unusual Smoke will be ridden by Martin Garcia.

Other starters include Nima's Pad, Suit Yourself, Nitro Active, Bert's Law, Mr. Wolverine, and Unusual Suspect. The California Dreamin' is race 8 on a 10-race card.