08/22/2008 12:00AM

Del Mar favorites - beat 'em or join 'em

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - There are four graded stakes races on Sunday's card at Del Mar, and they are an interesting group. The biggest challenge will be for handicappers to sift through the favorites to see which ones are worth trying to beat, and which others should be bet to win or keyed on top in the exotics.

The first stakes is the Grade 3 Rancho Bernardo, a 6 1/2-furlong sprint for fillies and mares. Magnificience was quite impressive while winning her first two starts last year at Santa Anita. She broke slowly, then dominated maiden specials by 6 1/2 lengths in her debut. She repeated with a five-length victory on the jump into the Grade 3 Santa Paula, and earned a lofty 109 Beyer, which is 9 points higher than the career-best performance of any other filly or mare in this field.

But there is a catch. Magnificience spent 13 months on the sidelines following that triumph, and hasn't yet been as fast in two starts since her return. She was all out to win an N2X allowance by a nose in her comeback, then finished second as the favorite in the Grade 2 A Gleam Handicap. She broke about a length slow in that race, then didn't show her usual tactical speed from that point and had to rally from ninth to finish second, 2 1/4 lengths behind Dearest Trickski, who broke sharply and led throughout in that race.

Many bettors will assume that Magnificience will reverse that decision in this race, but Dearest Trickski is going well now with six wins from her last seven starts, and should appreciate cutting back a half-furlong. I'll give her the call in the rematch. Value seekers should consider another possible scenario: If Magnificience isn't ready to return to top form, and Dearest Trickski regresses following her career-best performance, this race would be wide-open for a winner at attractive odds.

Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Midnight Lute figures to be pounded down to a low price as he makes his comeback in the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien. He likes this track, with two wins and a second from three local starts, and has been training well for his return. But he'll probably be overbet, and there are other contenders who deserve consideration. In Summation looks like an overlay. He was stuck behind a wall of horses, then made a strong move when he found running room and finished second behind Street Boss in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby. He'll be tougher with a better trip, and some improvement second time back from a three-month break. He should also like the extra furlong he'll be asked to cover in this seven-furlong race. Barbecue Eddie dueled and stopped in the Bing Crosby, but a more typical effort would give him a chance for an upset.

The Grade 2 Del Mar Mile Handicap is next. The key to this turf race is Daytona. If you believe he'll return to the form he showed when he won 6 of 7 graded stakes races, he'll be very hard to deny in this race. But if you rate him on his sixth-place finish as the heavy favorite last time in the Grade 2 American Handicap at Hollywood, he would be vulnerable. Trainer Dan Hendricks shows 21 percent wins and a $2.51 return on investment with horses returning from breaks of 31 through 60 days, and Daytona has been training well for his return. I like his chances of rebounding, and will key him on top in the exotics. Whatsthescript and Monzante figure to contend in the major exotic slots, with a slight edge to Whatsthescript, whose tactical speed will give him a better trip than Monzante is likely to get.

The Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic is the last of the four stakes races. Student Council was the upset winner of this race last year. You won't get the same $48.80 win payoff if he repeats, but he's coming into this race off a strong performance, and his 7-2 morning-line odds make him an acceptable win bet for me. Student Council is capable of staying within easy striking distance of the leaders, but he was not asked to do so last time in the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga. He was 10th of 11 early, rallied wide turning for home, and was not able to catch Commentator, who was loose on the lead most of the way en route to a decisive 4 3/4-length win.

But Student Council dominated the rest of that field when he finished second, with an 8 1/2-length gap to third. A similar effort would make him very hard to beat. Well Armed, who could be the speed of the speed, can add some betting value to the exotics. Awesome Gem can also make his presence felt for a share second time back from a layoff of nearly five months.