08/01/2007 12:00AM

A much-improved Epic Power

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Epic Power was a high-priced claimer when he went winless in three starts at the 2006 Del Mar meeting. He returns this year as the leading California-bred miler.

On the strength of three stakes wins in the last 10 months, Epic Power will be favored to win the $125,000 California Dreamin' Handicap for statebreds over 1 1/16 miles on turf at Del Mar on Friday.

The race comes at a time when the 6-year-old Epic Power is thriving, according to trainer Jack Carava.

"Right now, he's stronger than he's ever been," Carava said. "He's tough to gallop down here."

In the last year, Epic Power has changed in more than just his value. Last year, he typically raced on the lead, or right behind the leaders. In his most recent stakes win, the Korbel Handicap for statebreds over a mile on turf at Hollywood Park on June 30, Epic Power was able to stalk the pace and take the lead in deep stretch.

Epic Power won despite being struck in the face by a rival's whip in the stretch.

"I thought he ran very well," Carava said. "He did a few things that he hadn't done in the past, sitting off the pace."

Owned by La Canada Stables, Epic Power has won 12 of 48 starts and $547,287. Carava and La Canada have raced Epic Power 19 times.

The California Dreamin' has drawn a field of eight, with the Northern California invader Bold Chieftain expected to set the pace. Bold Chieftain, 4, has won 5 of 10 starts and $225,055.

Bold Chieftain won the Alamedan Handicap on the main track at Pleasanton on July 8, his second stakes win. Russell Baze makes a rare Southern California appearance to ride Bold Chieftain.

Lucky J.H., a two-time stakes winner in the spring of 2006, returns from a layoff of nearly 14 months. He runs near the front.

This will Lucky J.H.'s first start on turf, which is not a concern to trainer Carla Gaines. The horse worked six furlongs on the surface in 1:14 July 26.

"He couldn't have been more impressive," Gaines said. "He glided over the grass. I guess my biggest concern would be fitness. You can always be lacking a little in condition if you're going to run on turf as opposed to the main track."

Jack's Wild, the winner of the Crystal Water Handicap at Santa Anita in March, will be closing from off the pace.