08/05/2004 12:00AM

Front-runners on turf? Forget it

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DEL MAR, Calif. - One-third of the summer racing season is in the books at Del Mar, an appropriate time to reflect on early-season trends at the place where the turf meets the surf. So here goes.

Though handicappers generally consider early speed a welcome attribute, regardless of distance or surface, quite the opposite has held true this summer on the Del Mar turf. Make the lead, lose the race. It's that simple. The grass course repeatedly has gobbled up front-runners, and although the profile may eventually shift - particularly over a course that takes a beating six days a week - one-third of the way through the meet there is little indication of change.

The anti-speed profile has been particularly severe at the most frequent grass distance of 1 1/16 miles - 13 races through Wednesday without a single wire-to-wire winner. It's a far cry from the past five years at Del Mar. The first two weeks of the summer meet typically produced about one-third winners on the lead. The turf-course profile has been less dramatic at one mile - the pacesetter won two of the first seven grass races at the distance.

Speedsters dominating dirt sprints

Want to win a dirt sprint at Del Mar? Better have speed. Through Wednesday, 22 of 27 races at six furlongs had been won by a horse positioned within two lengths of the lead after the opening quarter-mile. At 6 1/2 furlongs, seven of nine were won from within the two-length parameter. There has been no bias regarding post - the inside box already produced eight winners from 62 total sprints.

Want to win a dirt route at Del Mar? Then simply back the best horse. Late runners certainly have done well at one mile, though the inclination has been mild - five of the 12 races were won by deep closers, four by front-runners or pressers. The profile appears more closer-friendly when maiden races (which typically are dominated by front-runners) are not considered. Of the nine remaining, only one race was won by a horse within three lengths of the lead after the opening half-mile.

Maiden claiming favorites shaky

It could be a statistical aberration, or a reflection of their sad ability, but favorites continue to take a beating in $25,000 maiden-claiming routes. Three more finished off the board this meet (July 30, races 3 and 8; Aug. 2, race 4), extending the streak of beaten favorites to 12 straight at the class level. A favorite has not won a $25,000 maiden-claiming route at Del Mar since Aug. 23, 2002. During the 12-race streak, only four of them managed to hit the board.

Souvenir Gift will step up

Souvenir Gift gets little respect, and despite a 3-for-3 record going into the Grade 3 Sorrento Stakes on Saturday, she will be under-respected Saturday also. That is because she faces a potential beast named Inspiring in the 6 1/2-furlong Sorrento for 2-year-old fillies. Inspiring has only started once, but off that race, and her subsequent workouts, she has to be considered the most likely winner of the Sorrento.

Inspiring and Souvenir Gift ran three races apart July 5, running similar final times. Inspiring raced five furlongs in 57.19 seconds; Souvenir Gift went six furlongs in 1:09.75. The raw times translate to similar Beyer Figures: 91 for Inspiring, 90 for Souvenir Gift. Their early fractions reveal a greater discrepancy. Inspiring ran a half-mile in 44.79; Souvenir Gift raced a half-mile in about 45.20. Inspiring is about two-fifths faster than Souvenir Gift in the early going.

It's true that Inspiring was running against maidens, but so was Souvenir Gift. Three fillies who finished behind Inspiring have since returned to win, including runner-up She's Salty. The fillies Souvenir Gift handled in the Landaluce include runner-up Bella Banissa, a maiden; third-place My Miss Storm Cat, who was compromised by tender shins and is out for the summer; and fourth-place Crypto's Wild, who was making her debut.

Souvenir Gift has nothing to be ashamed of. She's an awfully nice filly with a ton of ability and a perfect slate. But the competition always gets deeper at Del Mar. The prediction is that Inspiring, who has worked phenomenally over the track, will win the Sorrento and emerge as the undisputed leader of the California juvenile filly division.

Think twice about Pleasantly Perfect

Pleasantly Perfect is no longer invincible, and skeptics might be rewarded wagering against him Aug. 22, when he starts favored in the $1 million Pacific Classic. It is true that Pleasantly Perfect was conceding 10 pounds last weekend when he lost the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap, and the purpose of the prep race was merely to prepare for a fall campaign.

But the San Diego was a slow race that unfolded at a slow pace, and Pleasantly Perfect was unable to hold a significant lead of 1 1/2 lengths in the middle of the stretch. The bottom line is that the San Diego was a disappointing comeback for the nation's top-ranked handicap horse. Pleasantly Perfect may bounce right back and win the Pacific Classic, but his runner-up comeback leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Another vote against Lion Heart

Count this handicapper among those who plan to wager against Lion Heart on Sunday. Whether that means wagering on probable Haskell winner Rock Hard Ten depends on the odds. As for Lion Heart, it is already August, and he must still prove he is something more than a precocious miler who is vulnerable against top company at anything beyond 1 1/16 miles.

Baffert in unfamiliar position

Looks like the 2004 summer meet will be the first since 1996 in which trainer Bob Baffert does not lead the Del Mar standings. Jeff Mullins and Doug O'Neill have sprinted clear with nine wins each going into Thursday with no signs of letting up. Baffert won four races from his first 27 starters.

Victor Espinoza and Corey Nakatani have emerged as the dominant riders at the stand. While no one is riding any better than Nakatani (26 percent), Espinoza (20 percent) has more business.