08/09/2006 11:00PM

With fewer live Euros, time for new angles

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The turf-laden Del Mar stakes program that continues Saturday with the Grade 2 La Jolla Handicap was once a magnet for European imports.

Even when their recent overseas performances were inconspicuous, the imports often outran their odds. Change of any type can affect a horse's form, and few changes are as radical as shipping from one continent to another.

It made for good racing, and better gambling. Horseplayers willing to accept added risk - no one knew for sure if a Euro shipper would fire - were rewarded with generous payoffs when an import scored in a Del Mar stakes.

Golden Apples shipped from Ireland and paid $44 in the 2001 Del Mar Oaks; Sicy d'Alsace came from France and returned $84.80 in the 1998 San Clemente Handicap; Eternity Star, also from France, paid $79 in the 1991 Del Mar Derby.

But the influx of Europeans to Del Mar has slowed, along with one of the liveliest betting angles of summer. The import game has changed for three main reasons - decline of the dollar, fewer European horses for sale, and increased competition from buyers in Dubai and Hong Kong. The imports that do show up at Del Mar are overexposed and overbet.

Bloodstock agent Hubert Guy orchestrated the deal that brought La Jolla favorite Porto Santo to California.

"I used to buy 20 to 25 [European] horses a year; now I buy five or six," Guy said. "We have to be extremely precise, and careful. We don't have much room for error anymore."

A listed stakes winner in France, Porto Santo was pounded to 9-10 when he made his U.S. debut July 19 for trainer Julio Canani and owner David Milch in the Oceanside Stakes. Porto Santo walked out of the gate, steadied at the eighth pole, and fell short by a head. If he breaks running Saturday in the La Jolla, he should win. Problem is, everyone knows it.

Finding parimutuel value sometimes requires backing horses for reasons that are not obvious. The Euro strategy worked great when one could merely bet blind on every longshot European at Del Mar. Those days are gone.

Saturday is the halfway point of the 43-day meet, and Porto Santo remains the only non-maiden European to race here. Just last summer, 10 European runners made their U.S. debut at Del Mar. While the European angle apparently has dried up, the theory behind it remains valid. Value can be still found, even without unfamiliar shippers.

When a horse tries something different for the first or second time, there is always a possibility of improvement. It happened twice Wednesday with the most impressive winners on the card - second-time starter Master James ($8.80) in race 6, and second-time stretch-out Polyfirst ($28) in race 7.

Master James, a California-bred 3-year-old maiden, scored a powerful victory over six furlongs, winning by more than 10 lengths in 1:08.95 with an outstanding 103 Beyer Figure. His improvement could have been forecast; sometimes change takes place right before one's eyes.

Trainer Mike Mitchell does not crank his maidens for all-out efforts first time, so when Master James finished a fast-closing fourth July 22, it might have been an indication that a better effort was forthcoming in his second start.

"I'm not telling the jock to take him back, get him covered up, and get him beat," Mitchell said. "But I want that first experience to be a good experience. I think most handicappers pretty much know that."

The past five years, Mitchell's win rate with first-time starters is a mere 6 percent (5 for 82). Over the same period, Mitchell's second-time starters have fired at 27 percent (25 for 92).

"A lot of trainers, you see a first-time starter and you say 'He's going to need one,' " Mitchell said. "I probably could have worked him a couple more times out of the gate [before his debut], but I hate to just keep beating them up at the gate."

Not surprisingly, Master James broke dead last in his debut. He also finished well to miss by 1 1/2 lengths. Wednesday, the son of Bertrando broke like a shot, pressed the pace in third, and won in a romp. His second-start Beyer improvement was 29 points.

Mitchell said the $150,000 California Cup Sprint on Oct. 28 at Santa Anita is the autumn goal for Master James. The colt is owned by breeder Jerry Frankel and Bob Strauss, and is likely to start in an allowance race in the interim.

An $8.80 payoff on a second-time starter such as Master James won't knock anyone's socks off. But one race later on Wednesday, Polyfirst scored a 13-1 upset in the Osunitas Handicap. Forgiving bettors might have given her a second chance at two turns.

Polyfirst was keen and rank when trainer Richard Mandella stretched her out July 24. A sprinter in her first five U.S. starts, Polyfirst pulled hard on her jockey throughout that mile race. To some, the runner-up finish was cause to believe she wanted no part of a route.

Mandella, however, gave her a second chance. "The old way was to run a horse to take the edge off," Mandella said. "I think it did her good to run. It was just a matter of whether she would cooperate. She's a filly that can go from nice to [headstrong] in a split second."

Polyfirst rated comfortably Wednesday, unleashed a four-wide sweep on the far turn, and powered home by 2 1/4 lengths.

Although Mandella won the race with a mare that some believed would not get the trip, he does not claim to have solved the equine puzzle. "It's what keeps us all out here, because nobody really knows for sure," Mandella said.

"We just keep trying."