08/30/2004 11:00PM

Refueled and ready to win

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Now that Pleasantly Perfect has stuck a knife into the heart of the "Dubai bounce" theory, it is safe for Domestic Dispute to step up and seal the deal.

That's not to say Domestic Dispute, winner of the Strub Stakes last February, didn't need a bit of a break after his journey to the Middle East to run in the Dubai World Cup on March 27. His trainer, Paddy Gallagher, returned with a colt who was tucked and tired after finishing a distant sixth to Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro.

"The trip was tough enough," said Chuck Winner, who owns Domestic Dispute with Dave Bienstock. "On top of that, he couldn't handle the sandy track."

So Gallagher backed off and let Domestic Dispute refuel. By early July he was ready for serious training. By early August he was ready to run, and proved it on Aug. 15 when he finished second to Kela in the Pat O'Brien Handicap. Now, he looks ready to win.

Domestic Dispute will get his chance on Sunday in the $250,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap, a one-mile event that gives the main-track specialists one more crack at a serious pot before leaving town. Some very good horses have won the race - Precisionist, Congaree, and Alphabet Soup come immediately to mind - although there is nothing in that category looming this weekend.

If nothing else, Domestic Dispute leads the beauty parade. A son of Unbridled's Song, he is a blood bay with black mane and tail, white stockings, and a grand blaze that detours left when it hits his nose. As a young 3-year-old, Domestic Dispute was all legs and angles. Now, he has filled the frame with a pleasing array of long, stayer's muscles, which is why Gallagher and the team were so encouraged with the colt's solid comeback in the seven-furlong O'Brien.

On Tuesday morning, Winner and Bienstock were front and center at the Gallagher barn to watch Domestic Dispute work six furlongs under Kent Desormeaux in final preparation for Sunday's race. Neither owner carried a stopwatch - to their everlasting credit - but both of them were delighted to hear Desormeaux plead "whoa, whoa, whoa" as Domestic Dispute pulled hard by the stands.

A little over a minute and 13 seconds later, Domestic Dispute completed his steady breeze under a firm hold. Gallagher judged it "perfect," and neither Winner nor Bienstock disagreed.

"I know we can get faster," Winner said. "But we don't want faster. We want faster for the race."

This has been a busy year for Winner and Bienstock, and not just because their partnership in Thoroughbreds has expanded dramatically. Bienstock's Target Enterprises specializes in media buys for political candidates, while Winner runs campaigns linked to ballot propositions. His current hot-button California client is the "No" position on Proposition 68. The proposition would force the state's gaming tribes to choose between paying 25 percent of their casino take to the state or accepting the expansion of slot machines to racetracks. Not surprisingly, the gaming tribes are backing the "No on 68" campaign, and "No" is leading by 18 percentage points in the latest Field poll.

"He's got like an 86 percent success rate with his campaigns," Bienstock said. "That's why I wanted to own horses with him. Little did I know."

"It's a tougher game," Winner noted. "Your percentage goes down when you've got more horses."

How many?

"I've got 32," Winner said.

"I've got 28," countered Bienstock. "Chuck screwed me out of four."

"I've got to go get the cookies," Winner said, heading for the barn. "Time for the treats."

"They better be the right ones," Bienstock warned. Their allowance horse, Skywalker Red, he said, "wouldn't touch the last ones we bought."

"We almost pulled a blood," Gallagher cracked.

"He did finish fourth," Bienstock went on. "I see that as a direct cause and effect."

"Horse cookies," Gallagher said. "Chuck feeds them to the horses like he's giving them communion."

"I went to the Vatican once," Bienstock said. "Stood on the balcony where the pope addresses the crowd. Only thing was, there was no one to take my picture. You're Catholic, Paddy. You ever been to the Vatican?"

"Yes, of course," Gallagher replied. "It's a bar in Kildare. Got its name because the booths all look like confessionals."

Mind you, it goes on like this all the time, with the two owners and their Irish trainer batting lines back and forth over the net. Bienstock and Winner had early success with Fine n' Majestic, who took the 1995 California Derby, and Walkslikeaduck, who won the 2000 Del Mar Derby and ran in the Breeders' Cup Mile. But they really made headlines just before the 2003 Kentucky Derby by spending a reported $1 million to buy Domestic Dispute from his breeder, Gary Garber. The colt ran 10th in the Derby and has earned back only about a third of his cost. But don't cry for these guys.

"Not a single regret," Winner said. "We knew we were in tough for the Derby, and we bought this guy with the long term in mind. Just look at the places he's taken us. Anyway, after he won the Strub, I told everybody we'd been pointing for that race all along. If we win this one, I can say the World Cup was just a prep."