09/05/2003 12:00AM

Lots on the line in match race

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The match race between Patrick Valenzuela and Julie Krone on Sunday at Del Mar is being billed as the "battle of the sexes." But "battle for top jockey" is more like it.

The event started out as a promotional gimmick featuring Valenzuela, the top rider in Southern California in the last year, against Krone, the only woman rider in the Hall of Fame, in a $50,000 match race. Now it could play a role in determining the Del Mar jockey title. Through Thursday, Valenzuela led Krone by five wins, 46-41.

While Krone and Valenzuela compete against each other on a daily basis, their match race is the center of attention on a Sunday program that includes the $200,000 Palomar Breeders' Cup Handicap on turf.

The match race is the fourth race on a 10-race program and will count in the jockey standings. Run over 1 1/16 miles, the race matches two horses who have won maiden races - Krone rides Woke Up Dreamin for trainer Bob Baffert and Valenzuela has the mount on Chester's Choice for trainer Summer Mayberry. The two horses will be eligible to be claimed for $300,000, and the winning connections will earn $35,000. In the draw to determine mounts, Valenzuela won a coin toss for selection order but deferred to Krone, who drew Woke Up Dreamin's name out of a box. Each horse carries 118 pounds.

Even though Krone's mount is listed as the 2-5 morning-line favorite, she was already considered a sentimental favorite and even an underdog as a woman taking on a man. Valenzuela, who is more reserved than the feisty Krone, certainly has his legion of fans, many of whom have supported him faithfully despite interruptions in his career because of substance abuse.

The match race was originally scheduled with Krone and Gary Stevens, but Stevens was injured in a spill at Arlington Park in mid-August and did not return to riding until Friday.

Both Krone and Valenzuela, who are 40, downplayed the rivalry in recent days, but their competitive nature is certain to take hold on Sunday.

"I don't feel like they'll turn my Hall of Fame plaque around if I lose," Krone said.

"I don't want to say any smack I can't back up," Valenzuela said. "There's no pressure. To me, it's another horse race."

In the past year, Krone and Valenzuela have become two of the biggest stories in California racing.

Valenzuela returned from a 22-month absence from a substance-abuse problem in December 2001.

Last year, Valenzuela won riding titles at Hollywood Park and Del Mar; this year, he defended his title at Hollywood Park and won the Santa Anita winter-spring title.

Krone ended a retirement of 3 1/2 years last November. She was among the top five in the standings at Santa Anita in early March when she suffered a back injury in a spill that left her sidelined for four months. She won the richest race of the Del Mar meeting on Aug. 24, the $980,000 Pacific Classic, on Candy Ride.

"I'm the leading money rider, so at least I'm leading in one category," she said.

The match race is the latest promotion conducted by Del Mar to draw fans to the final weekend of the meeting. Last year, a match race between the popular mules Black Ruby and Taz was held as an exhibition.

Valenzuela rode both Chester's Choice and Woke Up Dreamin in their last starts. On Aug. 18, he guided Chester's Choice to a four-length win against maidens over 1 1/16 miles. "Summer's horse ran a big race the other day," Valenzuela said. "He was behind the speed and ran a big race."

Woke Up Dreamin, who has shown speed frequently in his five-race career, finished a troubled fifth in an allowance race over 6 1/2 furlongs on Aug. 27, his lone start this year. "I was kind of boxed in and he ran the last part," Valenzuela said.

Krone already knows the strategy she will use. "There's no technique," Krone said. "Just send 'em. That will be my game plan and I'm sure it will be his."