08/04/2003 12:00AM

Lusty Latin goes long on turf in Escondido


DEL MAR, Calif. - In the spring of 2002, when Lusty Latin was an overachiever on the Triple Crown trail, trainer Jeff Mullins had a long-term plan, hoping to eventually start the gray colt in turf marathons.

The opportunity arrives Wednesday when Lusty Latin starts in the $75,000 Escondido Handicap, the longest race of his career, over 1 3/8 miles on turf at Del Mar. Owned by Joey and Wendy Platts, Lusty Latin, 4, will attempt to end an eight-race losing streak that includes a third in the 2002 Santa Anita Derby at 47-1 and a 15th in the Kentucky Derby. He suffered an injury in that race and was off for more than nine months.

This year, Lusty Latin has not finished in the first three in four starts, but his last race left Mullins encouraged. In a one-mile allowance race on turf on July 26, Lusty Latin closed from last to finish fifth, two lengths behind the winner, Reef Diver.

"He was rolling late," Mullins said. "I feel like if the horse can lay a little more forwardly placed, he'll be a lot more comfortable going longer. If he can use that kick, he should be tough."

Martin Pedroza rides Lusty Latin in the Escondido, which is restricted to nonwinners of a first-place purse of $50,000 at a mile or over this year. The race has drawn 12 entrants but will be limited to 10 starters.

The main contenders are Asong for Billy, who was fourth in the Grade 2 Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park on July 20; Delta Form, the winner of the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap over 1 3/8 miles on turf here last September; and Lily's Lad, the runner-up in the Quicken Tree Stakes over 1 1/2 miles on turf at Hollywood Park in June.

Delta Form was third in an allowance race at Hollywood Park on June 22, his only start in the past three months. Trained by Jenine Sahadi, Delta Form is winless in four starts this year.

Lusty Latin's chances rely on his rally, which could be helped if Asong for Billy and Lily's Lad contribute to a quick pace. A win could lead to more turf marathons for Lusty Latin, who was claimed by his current owners and trainer for $62,500 in November 2001.

"We've expected a lot of things and not expected a lot of things; it doesn't always work out," Mullins said. "I hope our hopes are not too high. Hopefully, he still is what we think he is."