08/26/2005 12:00AM

Handicap enters new episode


DEL MAR, Calif. - To the untrained eye, Sunday's running of the $250,000 Del Mar Handicap resembles just about every other major long-distance grass race offered in California over the past two years.

The main players never seem to change, like characters in a long-running sitcom, in which Continental Red, Runaway Dancer, Sarafan, and Continuously could just as easily be referred to as Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer.

The handlers of these fine old steeds deserve praise. They have kept the competitive fires burning long after others have fallen by the wayside. Continental Red, age 9 and feeling fine, will be making start number 73. Sarafan, the 8-year-old world traveler, is making his 49th appearance. Continuously and Runaway Dancer are both 6 and are comparatively fresh, with 44 starts between them.

Fans have a right to wonder, though, how much longer this cast can hold the fort. The runners with star potential seem to come and go quickly - horses like Meteor Storm (gone east), Rhythm Mad (bowed tendon), and Star Over the Bay (dead in Singapore). At the same time, the new shooters in the Del Mar Handicap have a lot to prove.

Still, like any good series, there are entertaining subplots.

Noble Masterpiece, a 6-year-old son of Regal Classic, is a former $25,000 claimer who could be the rags-to-riches story of the meet - if he can get in the race. The narrow Del Mar turf can only take 10 horses under any circumstances, and 12 were entered for Sunday's event, which means low-weights like Noble Masterpiece, at 111, must wait for a scratch or two.

"The irony is, with Mike [Smith] riding, he'd be carrying five or six pounds over anyway," said trainer Jim Cassidy. "I'd dearly love to run him, though." He will find out Sunday morning.

Continuously and Exterior will try to give the Bobby Frankel stable - believe it or not - its first stakes win of the meet. Humberto Ascanio, Frankel's man on the scene, knew it might be a dry summer going in. And hanging one's hopes upon the ever-closing Continuously can be maddening. He hasn't "won" a race since November of 2003, when he backed into the Hollywood Turf Cup on the disqualification of stablemate Epicentre.

"I know how it sounds, but a mile and three-eighths is too short for him," Ascanio confessed. "He really needs a mile and one-half, maybe more."

Recent combatants Patrick Valenzuela (Exterior) and Corey Nakatani (Laura's Lucky Boy) will have a lap and a half to snarl at each other in the Handicap, more than enough time to make plans for the rematch back in the jocks' room. If one of them wins - and both are on live mounts - the other fellow gets to kill time during the postrace ceremonies by screaming into a dead telephone at an imaginary board of stewards.

But forget all that. Runaway Dancer should win the Del Mar Handicap because the race sets up well for his explosive final quarter, because he is in the best form of his life, and because his trainer has been watching him this summer from the top of a pony stationed near his barn, just outside the Del Mar clubhouse rail. And that, loyal fans, is a very big deal.

It has been nearly 14 months since rough-and-ready Dan Hendricks fractured his spine in a motocross accident that could have easily cost him his life. Instead, the 46-year-old Hendricks was rendered a T-3 complete, which means a third thoracic vertebra so utterly shattered that all the southbound nerves were irreparably severed, resulting in paralysis from the mid-chest down.

"I guess I'm getting used to it," Hendricks said Friday morning in his Del Mar stable office, sitting in his mud-splattered, souped-up, hand-controlled wheelchair. "I guess you can get used to almost anything."

For Hendricks, though, the chance to watch his sets from horseback has been an unexpected treat, made possible by his wife, Samantha, who knew of a 30-year-old pony just right for the job.

"You know, at 5-8 I wasn't exactly towering over people, but now I'm looking up all the time," Hendricks said. "Sitting on that pony feels good, even if it does take two guys to help me up there. And he's so solid and so quiet, it doesn't matter if I can't put any leg on him. I can give him all the cues he needs with the reins."

Soon, the pony will be outfitted with a customized saddle, complete with padding, safety straps and - if Hendricks has his way - racing stripes.

"Who knows? I may even be able to pony and jog before too long," Hendricks said. "Someone asked me if I wasn't worried about falling off and hurting myself. Now that made me laugh."

Always a good sign. Hendricks concedes he has had a hard time coping with his injuries. He has fought off depression, along with the daily frustration of the sudden physical challenges.

Hendricks credits his family and his job for getting him through the dark spots, and training horses like Runaway Dancer help. But if ever the outside of a horse has been good for the inside of a man, the Hendricks pony fits the bill.