09/01/2001 11:00PM

El Corredor works hard for the money

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The result was expected, but not the way it happened. El Corredor, the prohibitive 1-5 favorite, won the $250,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap for the second straight year on Sunday, but only after a stirring stretch drive that found three horses battling it out.

El Corredor, racing between horses, outfought Figlio Mio on the outside and Performing Magic on the inside in the final strides. El Corredor gained a much-needed boost when he changed leads in the final sixteenth. He won by a head over Figlio Mio, with Figlio Mio a neck in front of Performing Magic. Smile Again, Budroyale, and Bright Valour completed the finish, in that order.

El Corredor paid $2.40 to his many backers in the crowd of 20,811 after covering one mile on the fast main track in 1:35.24. With jockey Victor Espinoza up, El Corredor carried top weight of 121 pounds, eight more than Figlio Mio.

"He had to really work for it today," said El Corredor's trainer, Bob Baffert. "He gutted it out. He won it on heart, like Point Given in the Haskell. Now we can give him a bit of a breather and freshen him up for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. He should be ready to go."

Baffert had been uncertain last week over whether to run El Corredor here, just three weeks since his last race, or await the Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont Park later this month. He decided to run here in part because El Corredor, who has suffered from chronic quarter cracks, loves this track. "With him, you've got to make hay when the sun shines," Baffert said. El Corredor is 4 for 5 at Del Mar, and 7 of 9 overall. He is owned by Hal Earnhardt.

"He's a brilliant, brilliant miler," Baffert said.

El Corredor's lone loss in four starts at one mile came when he finished second to Fusaichi Pegasus in last year's Jerome Handicap at Belmont Park, site of this year's Breeders' Cup on Oct. 27.

Top Of Our Game takes Solana

Top Of Our Game, dropping from difficult races against open company into a stakes restricted to California-breds, captured the $125,000 Solana Beach Handicap for older fillies and mares on Sunday's undercard. She won the one mile grass race by 2 1/2 lengths over Mimi's Cafe, with Thewholebag third. Top Of Our Game was bred and is owned by John Harris's Harris Farms Inc.

David Flores rode the winner for trainer Carla Gaines.