07/18/2005 12:00AM

Opening bell gets this party started

Benoit & Associates
Eastern Sand (right), here losing to Chattahoochee War in the Hill Rise Stakes at Santa Anita, was given a two-month freshening for the Oceanside by trainer Jeff Mullins.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The loudest cheer on opening day of the 2005 Del Mar meet will be for - ahem - $25,000 maiden claimers. Is that such a bad thing?

California racing will accept whatever cheers it can get, and if the biggest roar from the crowd happens to be for maiden claimers, then so be it. As long as the first race of summer is two turns - it starts in front of the grandstand and close to an estimated 40,000 raucous fans - nothing spoils this beach party.

"It's a different atmosphere, people are happy," said trainer Richard Mandella of Del Mar. "We race all year in the same area, and we look forward [to Del Mar] because of burnout. This is one chance to go to the beach. I wouldn't call it a vacation, but it's a working vacation."

Even a poor post position for the Mandella-trained El Roblar in the second division of the $100,000-added Oceanside Stakes does not dampen his enthusiasm. In the mile turf race for 3-year-olds, El Roblar drew post 10.

"I like him," Mandella said, "but I wish I didn't have that post. I think he's the real thing."


The Oceanside is the first in a three-race series for 3-year-old turf horses that ends with the Del Mar Derby Sept. 5. Grade 1 stakes at the meet include the Bing Crosby Handicap for sprinters July 31; the Del Mar Oaks for 3-year-old turf fillies Aug. 20; the Debutante for 2-year-old fillies Aug. 27; and the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 21.

The top trainer of 2004, Doug O'Neill, will aim Hollywood Gold Cup winner Lava Man to the Pacific Classic, and he expects plenty of action at all levels through closing day, Sept. 7.

"The purses are high, and Del Mar has the most prestige," O'Neill said. "Everyone wants a winner's circle picture at Del Mar. It's exciting. It's like a brand-new year going down there."

With the largest stable in Southern California, O'Neill enters the meet stocked. "Everything that raced three or four weeks ago should be ready to run again, plus we've got a lot of 2-year-olds," he said. "Hopefully we'll have six or seven new shooters, which is always exciting."

The jockey colony this year will have a different look from 2004, when Corey Nakatani led the standings by winning at a 25 percent clip. Nakatani this summer will face Pat Valenzuela, Garrett Gomez, and Alex Solis, who missed most of the 2004 meet.

Valenzuela was suspended and did not ride last year. He has seven mounts opening day, including pacesetter Leo Getz in the first division of the Oceanside. Leo Getz finished fourth at odds-on in his most recent start, but he had an alibi beyond his wide trip. According to trainer Wesley Ward, Leo Getz lost his right front shoe in the race and came back lame.

Leo Getz has recovered, and he enters the Oceanside as a potential pace play. Runner-up one start back in a stakes at Golden Gate, Leo Getz will try to stretch his speed over a turf course that is brand new for 2005. Whether the course will favor any particular running style is pure conjecture, but there is no guessing regarding the class of the first division. Eastern Sand has placed in five successive turf stakes, and enters as the favorite.

Trainer Jeff Mullins said Eastern Sand's two-month layoff was by design.

"I just wanted to freshen him up for the Oceanside," Mullins said.

In his last start, Eastern Sand finished third in the Grade 3 Will Rogers, and the conditions of the Oceanside - nonwinners of a $50,000 stakes in 2005 - give him a decided class advantage over his allowance-caliber rivals. Solis, who was injured the third day of the 2004 meet and missed the rest of the season, rides Eastern Sand.

Mullins finished second behind O'Neill in the 2004 Del Mar standings, and enters the 2005 meet at full tilt. He won with 11 of his last 23 starters at Hollywood, and has a full allotment of stalls at Del Mar.

"It looks pretty good if the races go for us," Mullins said, adding that owner Bob Bone shipped eight new shooters from Kentucky and Florida. Where does it leave Mullins entering the meet?

"We're loaded," he said.

In the second division of the Oceanside, El Roblar will be in trouble without scratches. A 2-for-2 son of Breeders' Cup Mile winner War Chant, El Roblar drew post 10. The last horse to win a mile turf race at Del Mar from out there was Duke of Green, winner the Oceanside Stakes on opening day of the 2000 meet. That makes a span of 38 mile turf races with 10 starters. Solis rides El Roblar, whose main rivals include County and Juliesugardaddy.

The pace in second division will be set by either Dante's Inferno or Khyber Pass.

And in the $25,000 maiden-claiming race that is race 1, which annually gets the biggest cheer of opening day, Powerful Sister is the one to catch under Valenzuela.

First post for the nine-race card on Wednesday is 2 p.m.

Meet highlights

July 23John Mabee H., Gr. 1$400,000
July 24San Diego H., Gr. 2250,000
July 24Eddie Read H., Gr. 1400,000
July 31Bing Crosby H., Gr. 1300,000
Aug. 7Clement Hirsch H., Gr. 2300,000
Aug. 20Del Mar Oaks, Gr. 1,300,000
Aug. 21Pacific Classic, Gr. 1, 1,000,000
Aug. 21Pat O'Brien BC H., Gr. 2300,000
Aug. 27Del Mar Debutante, Gr. 1250,000
Aug. 28Del Mar Handicap, Gr. 2250,000
Sept. 4Del Mar Breeders' Cup H., Gr. 2350,000
Sept. 5Del Mar Derby, Gr. 2400,000
Sept. 7Del Mar Futurity, Gr. 2250,000