07/27/2011 1:57PM

Del Mar: Setsuko spotted for a win in Cougar II

Benoit & Associates
Setsuko, with Victor Espinoza Riding, falls short to Game On Dude in the Santa Anita Handicap.

DEL MAR, Calif. – The best older horse in California who is still eligible to the first allowance condition might be a standout in a Grade 3 on Friday at Del Mar.

Setsuko, runner-up by a nose in the Santa Anita Handicap, runner-up in the Californian, and a close fourth recently in the Hollywood Gold Cup, will survey his opponents in the Cougar II Handicap and possibly wonder – where are my friends?

After facing the likes of Grade 1 winners Game On Dude, Twirling Candy, and First Dude all spring, Setsuko meets easier Friday at Del Mar, where he is the likely favorite in the Cougar II at 1 1/2 miles on the main track.

“I am trying to get away from some of those heavyweights,” trainer Richard Mandella said. “And I’m trying to win a stake with him.”

At this point, winning any race will do. Setsuko’s 1-for-14 record includes six frustrating runner-up finishes. Yet recent good efforts against the best of the West Coast handicap division make him a potential standout stretching out from 1 1/4 mile.

“I don’t see any reason why he won’t handle a mile and a half,” Mandella said.

The Cougar II is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge race. The winner’s entry fees will be waived for and a spot guaranteed in the BC Marathon, and the horse will be eligible for a travel allowance.

BREEDERS' CUP CHALLENGE: Racing schedule, replays, and past winners »

Mandella stressed that Setsuko’s participation in the Cougar II does not preclude the meet’s richest race. “I haven’t written off the idea of the Pacific Classic,” Mandella said.

Victor Espinoza rides Setsuko, whose rivals include turf specialist Bourbon Bay and front-runner Dahoud. Others include Pode Ir, Erbeia, Times Gone By, Mindblower, and Oilisblackgold.

Dahoud, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, is the one to catch. “He’s going to be loose,” assistant Dan Ward said. Dahoud, runner-up by a half-length in the Grade , 1 1/2-mile San Luis Rey in March, and recent wire-to-wire allowance winner, is the lone front-runner in the Cougar II. But is speed good going 1 1/2 miles on Polytrack?

“It was good for Temple City, and it was good for Zappa,” Ward noted. Temple City won the 2010 Cougar II leading gate to wire. Zappa did the same thing in 2008. “This track isn’t any different that it was then,” Ward said.

Joel Rosario rides Dahoud, while Joe Talamo is up on Bourbon Bay. A four-time Grade 2 winner on turf, Bourbon Bay finished fourth last out in the Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth and two starts back finished third behind Acclamation in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham at Hollywood Park. He is racing on the main track for the first time since he was unplaced in a 2009 comeback at Santa Anita.

If there is an upsetter, it could be Erbeia, purchased privately after his most recent start. Formerly trained by Mandella, Erbeia is now trained by John Sadler.

“I bought him to try this race,” Sadler said, referring to the Cougar II. “It is a specialty race, and I think he will run all day. But it came up tough this year.” Erbeia has won 1 of 10. Alonso Quinonez rides.