07/18/2005 11:00PM

Returning to the scene

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Choctaw Nation, exercising at Del Mar last August, will attempt to end a year-long winless drought in Sunday's Grade 2 San Diego Handicap.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Choctaw Nation was all the rage one year ago. Claimed out of a winning debut by trainer Jeff Mullins and owner Bob Bone, he proceeded to rattle off four more victories, including the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar.

He has not won a race since.

Choctaw Nation was fourth in the Pacific Classic, then was off until February, when he finished fourth in the San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita. He subsequently finished third in the Dubai World Cup, behind Roses in May and Dynever, but in his lone start since then, he finished fifth of seven as the favorite in the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park.

Mullins is of the belief that Choctaw Nation will rebound on Sunday, when he defends his title in the Grade 2, $250,000 San Diego. Mullins thinks Choctaw Nation is far more effective at Del Mar and Santa Anita than Hollywood Park.

"If you go back on his form, and look at his numbers, when he won at Hollywood last year, it wasn't one of his better races," Mullins said Tuesday morning. "I don't think he's a horse who likes Hollywood Park. He's a one-run horse, and that track doesn't play that way."

According to Mullins, jockey Victor Espinoza worked Choctaw Nation at Hollywood, and told Mullins, "He's not the same horse there."

"That's why we skipped the Gold Cup," Mullins said. "We know he likes it here. I think he will run much better than last time. He's doing good."

Choctaw Nation gets in with only 115 pounds for the San Diego, two fewer than the highweighted Ace Blue, who carried two more pounds than Choctaw Nation in the Californian and finished five lengths behind him.

Ace Blue, who won the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood in May, worked a half-mile in 48.40 seconds on Tuesday morning at Del Mar.

Minister Eric back for San Diego

The 1 1/16-mile San Diego is a prep for next month's Pacific Classic. The San Diego will mark the return of Minister Eric, whose owner, Gerald Ford's Diamond A Racing Corp., and trainer, Richard Mandella, won last year's Pacific Classic with Pleasantly Perfect. Minister Eric has been sidelined since capturing the San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes in January at Santa Anita.

"He had a small chip taken out of each [front] ankle," Mandella said.

Mandella said Minister Eric has trained sharply for his return, and though the San Diego is a prep for the Pacific Classic, "I wouldn't mind winning the San Diego," Mandella said.

Mullins has busy day Sunday

In addition to running Choctaw Nation in the San Diego, Mullins on Sunday also will run grass star Castledale in the Grade 1, $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap at 1 1/8 miles. Both Castledale and Choctaw Nation traveled to Del Mar on Tuesday after working in company at Santa Anita on Monday.

Castledale has won his last two starts, and comes off a victory in the Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile at Hollywood on May 30.

"Physically, he's better now than he has ever been," Mullins said. "He's more mature. He has gained weight. He wants to win. Two works ago he worked in 58 and change breezing. It was sick. The kid was standing up the whole way."

Castledale was assigned top weight of 121 pounds for the Eddie Read, one more than Singletary and Sweet Return.

McAnally sends out pair in Read

Trainer Ron McAnally will double team the Eddie Read with Sweet Return, who captured the Whittingham at Hollywood Park in his last start, and Fast and Furious, who was sixth in the American Handicap on July 3 after finishing third in the Shoemaker.

"One horse is coming out of a winning race, the other didn't run much last time," McAnally said.

Sweet Return, McAnally said, "can run on any kind of turf, and he's better with a real slow pace.

"He's tough if everything goes his way, but he doesn't need the lead."

McAnally said his top exercise rider, Paddy Dalton, believes Fast and Furious will prefer the new sod on Del Mar's turf course over the Hollywood Park turf.

"This should suit him," McAnally said. "It has more give to it. His feet can sting him. Last winter, he had quarter crack problems that we were fighting all the time."

Abrams back at Del Mar

Trainer Barry Abrams, a non-smoker who has been treated for throat cancer in recent months, was smiling as he read the paper and watched workouts from his barn's second-floor porch on Tuesday morning.

"I had chemo, and then radiation," said Abrams, 51, who said he has lost about 60 pounds and now weighs about 245 pounds. "I still have a feeding tube, because I can't eat anything solid. The radiation burned my throat. They're not sure how long I will have to keep using the tube. It might be one month, two months, or four months.

"But I feel good. They said they got everything, and hopefully everything will still be good in five years."

Feld, 18, works as agent

When Sean Feld fills out his report on what he did on his summer vacation, he will say he worked as a jockey agent at Del Mar. Why flip burgers when you can flip trainers? Just kidding, kid.

Feld, who graduated from Loyola High School in Los Angeles in June and starts undergraduate work at the University of Kentucky next month, is working as an agent for jockeys Tony Farina and Matt Garcia.

Farina rides Kalookan Lessie in the $125,000 California Thorough-bred Breeders' Association Stakes on Friday.

"I'm hoping to break my maiden in a stakes," Feld said.

Feld, 18, is the son of bloodstock agent Bob Feld. Last summer at Del Mar, Feld apprenticed with agent Tom Knust.

* Megahertz was assigned top weight of 124 pounds for Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 John Mabee Handicap, two more than her Bobby Frankel-trained stablemate Intercontinental. Only one of the Frankel runners is expected to start.