08/27/2009 11:00PM

It's table-turning time at Del Mar

Benoit & Associates
Black Astor (right) beats Spring House (left) and Porfido in the Sunset. Will things be different on Sunday?

PHOENIX - It's not as if Spring House needs any help for Sunday's Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap. After all, the 7-year-old gelding is the defending champ in the 1 3/8-mile turf marathon and looked a solid contender again for this year's renewal. But he got a big assist when Midships, likely the top-ranked West Coast turf marathoner this year, came up ill and didn't enter. Spring House chased Midships in that horse's wins in the San Luis Rey and San Juan Capistrano.

It's been quite a ride for Spring House. Occasional forays into the deepest end of the pool (Dubai Sheema Classic, Breeders' Cup Turf) showed him a bit wanting there, but he's won nearly $1 million while doing his best work in Grade 2 or Grade 3 company. He finds another such spot Sunday.

His main issue Sunday could be more one of pace than competition. That's because Midships's absence likely means Black Astor will have control of things from the start, and the Lisa Lewis trained 5-year-old showed what he could do with such an advantage in Hollywood's Grade 2 Sunset Handicap July 19. That day, Black Astor's first start in exactly six months, he opened up a 10-length lead early in the 1 1/2-mile race. Despite that margin, he wasn't going all that fast. In fact, his half-mile fraction just shaded 50 seconds, and his six furlongs went in just over 1:15. So, when the field moved in on him like the press corps at a free buffet, he had plenty left and promptly kicked away again under Joe Talamo. It was a ride that would have made legendary jock Johnny Longden proud.

And most noteworthy was Black Astor's immediate victim - Spring House. That day Spring House was forced to take up the chase early, which took out of his normal mode of biding his time and coming with a sustained run. He moved up early to get within earshot of Black Astor, but that left him short on fuel for furlongs 11 and 12, and it showed.

Black Astor may well improve with that race under his belt, and he's worked smartly over this course of late. Still, Black Astor may not get things all his own way again. Temple City, Ghetto, and maybe even also-eligibles Itsnotjustagame and Quarter Moon have more than enough speed to keep Black Astor from clearing off too soon. This time, if Black Astor opens up he'll likely have to go faster and use more fuel.

Spring House can take advantage of a more pressured trip for Black Astor. Spring House is a legitimate professional stayer, and he can show it again Sunday.

Looking for revenge at Saratoga

It's hard to believe that this year's Grade 1 Personal Ensign, a 1 1/4-mile race for fillies and mares at Saratoga, does not include the likes of Zenyatta, Cocoa Beach, Music Note, Seattle Smooth, Seventh Street, Pure Clan or Acoma. But Icon Project isn't shedding any tears.

A daughter of Empire Maker, Icon Project came from Europe with a nice turf resume and made an immediate impact in the U.S. on the grass, but she seems even better on dirt. Rain forced the June 20 New York Handicap at Belmont off the turf, and trainer Marty Wolfson figured Icon Project would relish the going. She took to it like a duck to water, sweeping past crack turf mare Criticism and romping home by 13 1/4 lengths for a 106 Beyer.

In her next race, the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on the dirt, Icon Project sat back and finished with good energy to be second to Swift Temper, beaten 2 1/4 lengths. Swift Temper was able to dawdle early and had plenty left for the stretch drive and Icon Project must deal with her again in the Personal Ensign. This time, however, there's other speed to keep Swift Temper honest, and that can only help Icon Project get her revenge.