08/30/2001 11:00PM

El Corredor's new big-horse status on line

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DEL MAR, Calif. - With little warning, El Corredor has emerged as the top older horse in Bob Baffert's barn. The sudden retirement of Point Given and the form decline of Captain Steve have thrust 4-year-old El Corredor into a role of greater prominence, less than two months before the Breeders' Cup.

Before he meets Kona Gold in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, El Corredor will try Sunday to win the Grade 2 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap for the second straight year. He will be heavily favored in the mile race, a $250,000 stakes that also attracted Budroyale, Smile Again, and four others with borderline credentials.

El Corredor earned a career-high 119 Beyer Speed Figure winning the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien Handicap three weeks ago, and on Sunday will stretch out from seven furlongs to one mile. "He ran a big number; he's supposed to bounce," Baffert said, adding: "I think he'll bounce right into the winner's circle."

Bettors will agree. El Corredor, whose only loss in his last seven starts was to Fusaichi Pegasus, carries top weight of 121 pounds and enters with consistently higher speed figures than his rivals. Said Baffert: "There's nobody who can outrun him, he's just too fast for that bunch."

Problematic feet allowed El Corredor to start just once this year, and after Sunday he will not start again until the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Baffert believes El Corredor, who is owned by Hal Earnhardt, "is the kind of horse that could run a horse like Kona Gold down." El Corredor has won 6 of 8, and earned $577,920.

Baffert considered sending El Corredor to Belmont for the Sept. 22 Vosburgh, but said "his feet are really good now, and you're better off just running instead of shipping."

El Corredor's main rival Sunday also has been plagued by quarter cracks. Smile Again won the Grade 2 Bel Air Handicap on July 7, but has not raced since. Trainer Ron McAnally said, "Some quarter cracks are bad, some are medium, and some are really bad. His were really bad."

Smile Again's troublesome rear foot repeatedly was tubbed and poulticed, the quarter crack cut out, and a patch applied. Even though Smile Again hasn't raced in two months, McAnally is confident the horse will fire first start back. "He's training good up to this; he's always been a good work horse," he said. Asked if Smile Again can reproduce his Bel Air, McAnally said: "The way he's training, I don't see any reason why not."

Owned by Sid and Jenny Craig, Smile Again has won six races and $332,695 from 18 starts.

The richest horse in the field is Budroyale, making his second start on the comeback trail. Runner-up in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic, Budroyale split the field in his July 29 comeback, his first start back from a 14-month layoff.

A winner of 17 races from 50 starts, Budroyale has earned more than $2.8 million. The other starters are Performing Magic, Jorrocks, Figlio Mio, and Bright Valour.