07/28/2005 11:00PM

Crosby the toast of Del Mar

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The greater racing world can be forgiven if it neglects to take the Bing Crosby Handicap seriously. After all, the race itself is named for a guy who answered to "Der Bingle" and used to play second fiddle to a pile of fruit on Carmen Miranda's head. The winners of three of the last six runnings are currently employed as stable ponies, and the majority of the fans witnessing Sunday's 59th running will be woozy from an afternoon of pounding down fish tacos and whiskey sours.

On the other hand, the Crosby honors the racetrack's founding father - the man without whom there would be no Del Mar - which places it alongside such lofty titles as the Belmont Stakes, the Donn Handicap, the Haskell Invitational, and the Strub Stakes. Can you picture any of those guys playing Father O'Malley or trading zingers with Bob Hope? Well, maybe Doc Strub.

Bing Crosby was to mid-1930's and 1940's show business as Tom Cruise is to the entertainment world today. Except Bing could sing. Between his radio, recording, and film career, Crosby was probably the wealthiest, most influential superstar in the land. And when he decided to hitch that star to a racetrack project attached to the new Del Mar Fairgrounds, people took notice.

Through the first five years of Del Mar history, the racetrack was synonymous with Crosby. He peppered his popular radio shows and personal appearances with sly references to the races, to Seabiscuit (who ran at Del Mar in 1938), and to that little track by the sea, "Where the surf meets the turf," as he sang in Del Mar's trademark ditty.

The Bing Crosby Handicap was inaugurated in 1946 with a dead heat between War Allies, a son of Alibhai who was bred by Louis B. Mayer, and Indian Watch, who carried 105 pounds and Mel Peterson. By then, however, Crosby had backed away from the management of the Del Mar meet and was preparing to divest himself of financial involvement as well.

The Crosby aura continued to pervade Del Mar, though, and the race that bore his name became one of the top sprints in the West. Even though it did not become a hundred-grander until the late 1980's, the Crosby was won by a whole herd of fine runners, including champion Chinook Pass, world-record holder Zany Tactics, Viking Spirit, Kissin' George, Pretense, and the brilliant 3-year-old filly Soldier Girl.

In the past dozen years, the Crosby has truly come of age, attaining national recognition the old-fashioned way, through hard work and perseverance. Now rated Grade 1 by a tough-to-please North American Graded Stakes Committee, the Crosby has become a coveted event, and the winner - as long as it has four legs and a tail - is immediately ranked among the national sprint leaders. What amounts to an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint comes along with the prize, as well as heightened scrutiny from handicappers, bloodstock merchants, and jockey agents looking for the next fast ride.

The status was well earned. Thirty Slews won the 1992 Crosby, then took the Breeders' Cup Sprint a few months later. In the 1993 version, The Wicked North tipped his class and went on to win an Eclipse Award the following year as the nation's top older male. Lit de Justice previewed his dramatic victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint by winning the 1996 Crosby, as did Kona Gold when he completed the Crosby-Breeders' Cup double in 2000.

The greatest Crosby ever run came in 2001 when Kona Gold, at age 7, out-gutted the young tiger Caller One, a two-time winner of Dubai's Golden Shaheen, in a race that still raises gooseflesh. Kona Gold, along with 1998 Crosby winner Son of a Pistol, are both enjoying active retirements as stable ponies for their trainer, Bruce Headley.

Pico Central's retirement will be somewhat different, but the end of his admirable career is near, and Sunday's Crosby will be the beginning of his chance to go out with a bang. He'll be favored, but no concessions will be made, especially from the likes of Storm Wolf and invaders Battle Won and Top Commander.

Although he hasn't won since December, Taste of Paradise has been out only four times this year and ran creditably in the General George Handicap at Laurel, finishing 1 1/2 lengths behind eventual Golden Shaheen winner Saratoga County. Taste of Paradise's last race, in the Triple Bend at Hollywood, was a disaster.

"The sand on that track is very abrasive, and it sprays very high," said trainer Gary Mandella. "Our horse was down on the inside, and he came back with his eyes all cut up."

Mandella, who once did time as an analyst for TVG, ran through the Crosby contenders, trying hard to give his horse a chance.

"Pico Central could be vulnerable off his layoff," Mandella said. "Pt's Grey Eagle comes out of the Hollywood Gold Cup, so some of his brilliance could be a little dulled. The Midwest horses have some mystery to them in terms of how they fit out here. Greg's Gold is unproven against stakes runners, and Storm Wolf is unproven against older horses.

"Even with all that," he said, "it's still a very tough six furlongs."