09/08/2004 11:00PM

Observations at the beach


CARLSBAD, Calif. - The last of 43 postcard sunsets put a sad glow on Del Mar's farewell card Wednesday, when 15,132 fans showed up for one last round of Del Margaritas. It was a season to remember, for a while anyway, from the Pacific Classic exacta of Pleasantly Perfect-Perfect Drift, to the closing-day Futurity fireworks provided by Declan's Moon and Roman Ruler.

These things also happened:

* Envelope please - Corey Nakatani may have lost the battle of the Del Mar Futurity aboard heavily favored Roman Ruler, but he won the war by the shore, coming on strong closing day to edge Tyler Baze for the summer title, 54-52. It was Nakatani's third Del Mar title spread over the last 11 seasons.

Doug O'Neill, 11 years ago, had just taken out his trainer's license. Now, O'Neill, 36, has won his first Del Mar title.

"I'm honored, and humbled," O'Neill said closing day. "All I can say is thank goodness for Leandro."

O'Neill was not referring to a patron saint, or an imaginary friend. Leandro Mora, formerly chief assistant to Brian and then Jeanne Mayberry, has helped O'Neill rise to the top ranks of the local training table in the past two years. Wiseguys even try to give Mora all the credit, which would drive most head trainers nuts. O'Neill just laughs.

"It certainly is 50-50," O'Neill said. "And my wife especially appreciates him. Having someone like that I can trust allows me to take what little time I can to be with my family."

One Del Mar title is nice, but now O'Neill needs to do it again. Otherwise, he will be lumped into a list of one-hit wonders who managed only a single Del Mar title over the past 50 years that includes Henry Moreno, John Gosden, Riley Cofer, John Leavitt, Buster Millerick, Charlie Whittingham, and Richard Mandella. Come to think of it, that's not bad company.

* Never mind TVG . . . I want my Court TV - It is not true that some of the circuit's top riders spent more time testifying than switching sticks during the 43-day meet. It only seemed that way.

While the afternoon was action-packed, the mornings mainly belonged to the barristers. Leading the way, the Patrick Valenzuela appeal hearing into the violation of his drug-testing agreement with the California Horse Racing Board stretched over three days and nearly 10 hours, which makes proportionate sense, since the stewards have recommend he be banned for life.

Corey Nakatani's appeal of his 30-day suspension for allegedly dropping Javier Santiago at Santa Anita last March took three hours to be presented - who says the wheels of justice grind slowly? - while hearings into the merits of seven-day suspensions handed Victor Espinoza and Tyler Baze required somewhat less work for the court reporters.

Still, there was all that beach time spent indoors.

* Viva Del Mar - Julio Canani, who likes to joke that he would get more good horses if he had blue eyes, had a meet for the ages with major stakes winners Blackdoun, Special Ring, Amorama, and Sweet Catomine. Their prizes were the Del Mar Derby, the Eddie Read, the Del Mar Oaks, and the Debutante.

Canani, who says he comes from Peru (friends would suggest Mars, or Middle-Earth) was not the only Latin American trainer to shine. Mexico's Juan Garcia, ably assisted by his son, Victor, had Dream of Summer primed to win the $150,000 Rancho Bernardo Handicap, while Argentina's Luis Seguin shocked the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch handicap with Miss Loren, who runs next in the Ruffian at Belmont Park.

Canani's achievement, however, has few peers, no matter what their national origins. Mandella thought he had a good meet last year when he won the Oaks, the Debutante, and the Futurity. So did Ron McAnally in 1994 when he won the Futurity, the Debutante, and the Chula Vista (now the Hirsch), while the best Charlie Whittingham ever did in the meet's major events was win the Read, the Oaks, and the Ramona (now the Mabee) in 1975.

Only Bob Baffert's 1999 Del Mar tops Canani's 2004, when Bob won the Pacific Classic, the Read, the Ramona, the Oaks, the Debutante, and the Futurity. At least, that gives Julio something to shoot for next year.

* Return of the Ninja Turtle - That is how Alex Solis thought of himself as he spent the last six weeks of the Del Mar meet encased in a rigid torso brace whenever he ventured out in public.

"I hope to get rid of my shell soon," said Solis, who was leading the national standings when he went down hard on July 23 and fractured his T-5 vertebra. Surgery was needed to repair the bone. No one needs to mention, though, how much worse it could have been.

Jockeys are notorious for their ability to defy the odds of normal healing cycles. "It's only a flesh wound" is their typical mantra. Nevertheless, Solis vowed to pay close attention to his doctors - and his body - before entertaining thoughts of a return to action. Hopefully, when he goes back to work later this year, there will be Eclipse Award consideration awaiting him, as well as support for deserving induction into the Hall of Fame.