07/13/2012 3:02PM

Hollywood Park: Dhaamer back at best distance in Sunset Handicap

Benoit & Associates
Dhaamer wins the Round Table Stakes in his last start at Hollywood Park on May 13.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Dhaamer and Juniper Pass meet for the first time Sunday in the Grade 3 Sunset Handicap, a 1 1/2-mile turf race on closing day of the spring meet at Betfair Hollywood Park.

The race is the first for Dhaamer since he won a minor stakes two months ago over the same course and distance. In the interim, things have changed for trainer Mike Mitchell, who underwent surgery June 29 to remove a brain tumor. During recovery, he has hardly disappeared.

“Mike was here for all the major breeze days last week, watching horses from the front side and giving me input,” assistant Phil D’Amato said. “Things have gone well.”

The stable won three of eight since Mitchell’s surgery, including the Grade 1 Triple Bend, and entered closing weekend ranked fourth in the standings with 13 wins from 64 starters.

Mitchell and D’Amato expect more positives Sunday, when Dhaamer and his new jockey face an improving Juniper Pass and three others in the $100,000 Sunset. Mitchell’s future son-in-law, Julien Leparoux, engaged to Mitchell’s daughter Shea, rides Dhaamer.

Leparoux will stay to ride the opening-day card at Del Mar on Wednesday before he returns to New York. In Dhaamer, he will ride a sharp gelding in peak form. Dhaamer has raced three times in the United States; his dominating win last out marked an improvement over his fourth-place finish in the 1 3/4-mile, Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano.

“The San Juan was a little beyond his stretch,” D’Amato said. “A mile and a half suits him better. He’s training really well.”

Dhaamer has won 4 of 13 overall. He and Juniper Pass are co-highweights at 118 pounds.

Juniper Pass makes his third start after being off 10 months with “palmar metacarpal disease,” which is bruising at the bottom of the cannon bone. Undetected, the condition can spell the beginning of the end. But with time and treatment, trainer Ray Bell expects Juniper Pass to return top form.

“I’m confident he’ll run well,” Bell said, noting the Sunset is his third start back and conditions more favorable than last out when he finished fourth in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham, a slow-pace race won by Acclamation.

“The whole scenario was against him,” Bell said. “Not just the company, but the scenario.”

Bell is adding cheater blinkers to Juniper Pass to give jockey Rafael Bejarano the option of laying closer to the pace.

Juniper Pass won two Grade 2s in 2011 before he was sidelined – the San Juan and San Luis Rey. He has won four races and $307,375 from 15 starts.

Three other entrants in the Sunset, race 3, include the filly Quaintly, Romp and Renegade Storm.