08/29/2007 12:00AM

Early-season stars head El Cajon

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Noble Court (right), winning the seven-furlong San Vicente in February, beat older horses last out.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Derailed by injury and weariness earlier this year, Noble Court and Cobalt Blue will start as favorites in their respective divisions of Friday's $100,000 El Cajon Stakes at Del Mar.

Cobalt Blue will start from the outside in the 10-runner first division, the fourth race on an eight-race program that begins at 3:30 p.m.

The winner of the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita in March, Cobalt Blue is making his first start since finishing third in the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park in June. Earlier this year, he was held out of the Kentucky Derby after trainer Doug O'Neill said that he was unhappy with the colt's training.

"I think he was a little leg-weary," O'Neill said.

O'Neill is concerned that Cobalt Blue's front-running style may not be suited to Del Mar's Polytrack synthetic surface. The El Cajon is run at a mile, and two-turn races have not proven kind to pacesetters at this meeting.

"One of his main assets hasn't been a strength at this meeting," O'Neill said. "He likes to take it to them."

Asked what strategy he would employ, O'Neill said, "That's why you leg up future Hall of Famer Victor Espinoza and say good luck."

Owned by the Merv Griffin Ranch Co., Cobalt Blue faces four other stakes winners: Another Kris, Big Bad Leroybrown, Freesgood, and Spot the Diplomat.

Griffin the popular entertainer and businessman, died last month from prostate cancer.

Noble Court will be short-priced favorite in the seventh race, the second division. Trained by John Sadler for Joy Ride Racing, Noble Court has won half of his six starts, including the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes over seven furlongs at Santa Anita in February. A bruised foot kept him off the Triple Crown trail.

Since returning, Noble Court has finished second in the Captain Squire Handicap on turf at Hollywood Park and beaten older horses in an optional claimer over a mile here on July 29.

"He hasn't done too much wrong," Sadler said. "I thought it was a big race when he beat older horses. He's trained exceptional."

Sadler was especially pleased with a six-furlong workout in 1:12.40 last Friday under jockey Corey Nakatani. Sadler timed Noble Court through the final quarter-mile in 23.20 seconds.

"That's hard to do on this track," he said.

Noble Court has nine rivals, including the stakes winners Roman Commander, Knockout Artist, Try to Fly, and Zoning In.