08/28/2003 11:00PM

Past foes key in Grade 2 Del Mar 'Cap

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Two months to the Breeders' Cup, and the West Coast is looking stronger every day. California-based Candy Ride (BC Classic), Storming Home (Turf), and Special Ring (Mile) have emerged as division leaders, casting shadows even as they skip races such as Sunday's Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap.

The 1 3/8-mile turf race has 10 entrants and a $250,000 purse. Even without a marquee horse in the lineup, the race carries Breeders' Cup implications. Because if Irish Warrior and Mister Acpen run as expected, they will further validate the form of Candy Ride, Storming Home, and Special Ring.

"Those are a little tough for this guy," said Irish Warrior's trainer Wally Dollase, who hopes Irish Warrior responds to a class drop following third-places finishes in the Grade 1 Eddie Read (won by Special Ring) and Grade 2 American (Candy Ride and Special Ring ran one-two).

A 5-year-old who has never raced beyond 1 1/8 miles, Irish Warrior "appears to have all sorts of stamina," Dollase said, adding "he rates beautifully, and he's got so much kick." Alex Solis rides 5-for-18 Irish Warrior, whose satisfactory recent efforts against Grade 1 competition make him the clear choice Sunday.

Mister Acpen also drops in class after finishing off the board in the nine-furlong Read, a step backward for this Chilean import. He previously finished second in the Grade 1 Whittingham won by Storming Home in June at Hollywood Park. Trained by Kristin Mulhall, Mister Acpen should benefit from the added distance Sunday; he won a Group 1 in Chile at 1 1/2 miles.

Handicappers who trust the form of Candy Ride, Special Ring, and Storming Home will settle on either Irish Warrior or Mister Acpen as the most likely Del Mar Handicap winner. Eight others entered, including 119-pound highweight Ballingarry. Winner of the Grade 1 Canadian International last year, Ballingarry has not been the same. His only competitive race this year was a workmanlike Grade 3 win at Arlington.

Continental Red finished a flat third in a Grade 2 in his last start July 20. A 7-year-old gelding, Continental Red was sharper a year ago. Bonus Pack is up in class after an ordinary victory in the restricted Escondido Handicap, in which Mont Saint Michel finished second.