07/24/2005 11:00PM

Just grab ahold and keep turning left

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DEL MAR, Calif. - For those who cling to the threadbare homily that "pace makes the race" when it comes to the performance of certain horses, please consider the mounting pile of evidence provided by Sweet Return that pace, in fact, makes no difference at all.

It's a tough sell, because the concept is ingrained. A horse goes too fast too early and he turns to toast. Another horse lags too far behind a dawdling leader and even his best finish will fall sadly short. These are held as immutable truths, backed by the same unforgiving physics that determine things like gas mileage or how long you last at Red Tracton's after the races.

The fact that Sweet Return is oblivious to such concerns was nailed home again Sunday in the $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap. Once again, the grand old chestnut popped the gate like Kaweah Bar, then settled into his loping, easy stride. The fact that none of the others in the Read field joined him was hardly Sweet Return's problem. In fact, he couldn't have cared less. With reins dangling, Alex Solis sat like a statue as the field made the left-handed elbow from the turf chute to the main course and stayed that way around the clubhouse turn and onto the backstretch.

The clocking technology for the Del Mar course was off to a shaky start earlier in the week, but by Sunday it seemed to be back on the beam. Sweet Return was timed in successive quarters of 25.17, 24.14, and 23.39 before arriving at the three-eighth marker on the far turn with Breeders' Cup Mile winner Singletary still hot on his tail. Sweet Return then produced three successive furlongs that shaded 12 seconds each, including a final eighth in 11.30 that was in part inspired by a couple of right-handed cracks from Solis. Sweet Return won by 1 1/2 lengths, coming within two-fifths of Special Ring's stakes and course record.

"When I saw myself do that, I was a little embarrassed," Solis said of his use of the whip. "He was already drawing away."

The Read was Sweet Return's fifth major Southern California stakes victory for trainer Ron McAnally and owner John Brunetti since he burst forth with a 16-1 surprise under Julie Krone in the 2003 Hollywood Derby. He has led throughout in four of the five wins, although the pace and distances have differed significantly, while the courses have all been firm.

* In the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Derby, Sweet Return went the first three-quarters in 1:17.49 and won by a half-length.

* In the 1 1/4-mile San Marcos Handicap, in early 2004 at Santa Anita, he got his first three-quarters (with a little downslope at the start) in 1:12.26 and won by a half-length.

* In the 1 1/4-mile Whittingham Memorial in June, Sweet Return's three-quarter time was a shade over 1:14, after which he held strong to win by a head under Solis.

* In his other major win, the 2004 Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita, Sweet Return came from well off a 1:09-and-change three-quarter fraction to win by a half-length. On paper, the race looks like a different Sweet Return. Gary Stevens, who rode Sweet Return in the Kilroe and the San Marcos, insists otherwise.

"I did what Julie did in the Hollywood Derby," said Stevens, who is at Saratoga getting ready for Wednesday's opener. "Basically, I dropped his head and let him place himself.

"He's a very intelligent horse," he said. "He wants to dictate his own pace. When you go to steering him like a race car or try and place him somewhere specific in a race, he doesn't like it. In fact, he'd be a great horse for an apprentice. You'd just tell a kid to take two handfuls of mane and hang on. He'll take you around."

It is Stevens's opinion that more horses would display the same versatility if they were allowed.

"The difference with Sweet Return is that McAnally encourages his jockeys to have confidence the horse will run that winning last quarter of a mile, no matter where he's at or what the pace scenario is around him," Stevens said. "I hate to compare him to a guy who has just won his seventh Tour de France, but just like Lance Armstrong, Sweet Return will keep himself in the hunt and yet conserve every bit of energy he needs for that final kick. If he's allowed to do it on the lead, shame on the rest of them."

When Sweet Return has lost - and he did have an eight-race streak from May 2004 to June 2005 - his feet have been primarily to blame. By the time he got to Keeneland last fall for the Shadwell Mile, there wasn't much hoof left and one of his shoes went flying.

This year, McAnally and his crew have the feet licked and Sweet Return on a roll. If all goes well, his next stop will be the Arlington Million, which was news enough to discourage Gary Stevens from making plans to spend Aug. 13 at Arlington Park.

"After watching Sweet Return run yesterday," Stevens said, "and the way Kitten's Joy came back at Churchill Downs, unless some European powerhouse comes up, I'd just as soon not go there to run third."