07/19/2004 11:00PM

Hot barn sends out hot horse


DEL MAR, Calif. - just might be the good-luck charm for trainer Jeff Mullins. Since the mare joined Mullins's barn last fall, Mullins has swept every training title in Southern California. He was first at last fall's Hollywood Park meeting, first at Santa Anita, and first at the recently completed Hollywood Park summer season.

Magnificent Val can help Mullins score an early-season victory at Del Mar. She will be the one to catch in Thursday's seventh race, which headlines a sleepy second day after the tumult of Wednesday's opener.

Capturing a fourth straight training title on this circuit is not something Mullins said he has set out to accomplish. But he might not be able to help himself. His stable has increased in size - now numbering 60 head between here and Hollywood Park - and quality. Combine that with a high win percentage, and Mullins is a powerful force.

"I really don't think about it until the last couple weeks of a meet," Mullins said Tuesday morning about trying to win training titles. "I just want to keep the horses sound and happy and keep them in the right spot."

He has done that with Magnificent Val. The 5-year-old mare has won five times and finished second twice in seven starts since joining Mullins's barn. She has been favored in her last five starts. Because she is out of allowance conditions and not quite good enough to compete in graded stakes on this circuit, Magnificent Val is in for an $80,000 claiming price in Thursday's feature, an optional claimer for female turf runners.

There is little speed in the 1 1/16-mile grass race, so Magnificent Val should make the early lead under Victor Espinoza. "She looks like she's the only speed in there," Mullins said.

Of her four rivals, Eternal Melody poses the most serious threat. The New Zealand invader is dropping into an allowance race after competing in graded stakes races in her first two starts in this country. Eternal Melody was third in Churchill Downs's Mint Julep Handicap on May 29, then was eighth of 13 after a wide trip in Hollywood Park's American Oaks on July 3. Blinkers are added for Thursday's race.

Star Vega is winless since April 2003, but finished less than two lengths behind Magnificent Val in an optional claiming race on June 30.

Joyful Ballad ships in from the Midwest for trainer Tom Proctor. All three of her victories came during the winter in Florida.

Crozet, a 3-year-old, faces older runners for the first time. She won three straight grass races in the Bay Area, then was fourth in Hollywood's Flawlessly Stakes on July 3.