08/25/2005 11:00PM

The 'other' Drysdale right one in Del Mar 'Cap

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PHOENIX - Your first impression after combing over the past performances of Sunday's Del Mar Handicap is that if they ran this race 10 times there would probably be seven different winners. But the very factors that makes this race tough to figure - a large field of horses that seem within a length of each other in ability - give bettors a good chance to profit.

Neil Drysdale saddles two for the race. Not that any tears need to be shed for him, but Drysdale is due for some luck this Del Mar meet. He's had some tough beats, some troubled trips, a disqualification of one of his horses that he disagreed with, and a case when one of his runners suffered enough interference to merit being moved up, but wasn't.

There's a good chance for at least some redemption in the Del Mar Handicap. That's because his two runners - Always First and Sarafan - appear primed and ready to run big. And in this competitive 1 3/8-mile grass event, that's all you can ask for.

Sarafan may go favored. An 8-year-old, he has had a marvelous career. Sarafan has won 10 of 48 for over $2.6 million. He won the

Grade 1 Eddie Read, and nearly won the Grade 1 Arlington Million. He may not be that kind of horse any longer, but he's still got one thing going for him here - he still thinks he owns the Del Mar turf course.

Sarafan's record is 4-2-0 in seven starts over the course, and it could be even better. He finished second, beaten a neck, in this same race last year to Star Over the Bay. He would have won in another jump. Then last time out, in the Aug. 3 Escondido over this course at this distance, Sarafan powered home and beat Laura's Lucky Boy to the wire by a head. But the stewards ruled that Sarafan bumped Laura's Lucky Boy and they moved Sarafan to second. Mr. Drysdale was not amused.

If nothing else, however, the race proved Sarafan still has what it takes to be big in a race like the Del Mar Handicap. He may not be able to run with the likes of Kitten's Joy any more, but there's still plenty of gas in the tank.

But to my way of thinking, Sarafan is only the second-best horse in the race trained by Drysdale. The best is Always First. A 4-year-old son of BC Mile hero Barathea, Always First was good enough to be competitive in a

Group 2 in England as a 3-year-old last year. He came to Drysdale and immediately showed some ability at Hollywood in the spring with a nice allowance win. After that, however, he crossed the wire fourth in two straight races, although he encountered trouble in the second of those and was moved up to third via a disqualification.

Then came the breakout race. In the Grade 2 Sunset Handicap at Hollywood on July 17, Always First put up the best performance of his life. He was in tight along the inside, but had the gumption to stay there and fight through, eventually bulling his way to the lead and edging away for the impressive win. He earned a 104 Beyer.

The Southern California turf distance division has been a revolving door the past few seasons. Those who have had a turn or two in the spotlight over the last few years include Star Over the Bay, Meteor Storm, Continental Red, Vangelis, T. H. Approval, Stanley Park, Runaway Dancer, License to Run, Pellegrino, Habaneros, Puerto Banus, Rhythm Mad, Sabiango, Epicentre, Continuously, and Exterior. But no one has been able to take control of this division. Always First has a chance to remedy that.

Why the sudden improvement from Always First? First off, he may finally be acclimated to his surroundings. Drysdale has had plenty of time to get to know him, his wants, his needs. Drysdale added blinkers for Always First's last two starts, which may have been critical. Finally, Victor Espinoza rode Always First for the first time last time and the two meshed wonderfully. Espinoza may simply have a feel for this guy.

The bottom line is that while the gap from top to bottom in the Del Mar Handicap is minimal, Always First appears to have the most upside, and judging by the way he won the Sunset he may be ready to turn the corner.

And if you're playing exactas, don't forget about the gallant old man Sarafan.