07/22/2005 12:00AM

Rich and poor equally adored

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DEL MAR, Calif. - There is a hot side and a cool side to the low-slung, open-faced adobe barns at Del Mar that were built in the 1930's by crews attached to the Works Progress Administration, a federal program designed to give jobs to some of the 10 million Americans rendered jobless by the Great Depression. The hot side is exposed to the east, catching the morning sun, and usually stays hot all day despite the efforts of screens and fans. The cool side, facing the Pacific, enjoys shade through the morning hours, then light ocean breezes in the afternoon.

Trainers such as Jeff Mullins, with a full allotment of stalls, must pick and choose which horses get which side. It's not easy, because they all deserve the best possible accommodations, even though their abilities range from low-level claimers, to old pros Captain Squire and Bluesthestandard, to contemporary stakes winners such as Brooke's Halo and Mighty Beau.

It should come as no surprise, however, that two of the best spots on the cool side of the Mullins stable complex are occupied by the two coolest horses on the block - Castledale and Choctaw Nation - who will be very much on display Sunday at Del Mar as the likely favorites in the twin features.

Castledale, the 4-year-old ball of fire from Ireland, runs in the $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on the grass, while 5-year-old Choctaw Nation, laid-back and lanky, defends his title in the $250,000 San Diego Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the dirt.

"There's Castledale now," Mullins said, nodding toward the tow ring where a blood bay with four white socks was pulling a hotwalker in circles. "Just to look at him, he's not really remarkable, but he sure doesn't know he's only 15 hands and 900 pounds. He definitely thinks he's something special."

And why not? Castledale has won major West Coast stakes at ages 2, 3, and 4, on both grass and dirt. He is on a two-race roll, with back-to-back victories in the San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate and the Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park.

In the Read, Castledale will confront a tough group that includes 2004 Breeders' Cup Mile winner Singletary and Whittingham Memorial winner Sweet Return, along with contenders Fast and Furious and A to the Z. It is even hard to dismiss the two outsiders, Fourty Niners Son and Qsar, especially since they come from the barns of Neil Drysdale and Bobby Frankel.

Castledale, though, is the hot property, and his Shoemaker effort under Rene Douglas was especially impressive.

"Rene came back from working him the first time and had him figured out," Mullins said. "He could tell he had a big move in him, but you had to wait as long as you could to use it."

Choctaw Nation, on the other hand, winds up slower and, on his best days, sustains a long, steady finish. He has never really run back to his explosive effort in the 2004 San Diego, in which he defeated Pleasantly Perfect. But his third-place finish to Roses in May in the Dubai World Cup was admirable, even though his comeback in the Californian at Hollywood Park was a flop. A case of Dubai blues?

"Can't blame Dubai," Mullins said. "In fact, he came back from there better than any of the other three horses I've taken over there. I think with most horses it's not the long trip, it's the amount of time they spend. Ideally, you would want to go over there a month or so early and maybe get in a race. As it is, we have them over there just long enough to think they're settled in, then we turn right around and bring them home."

Even though Mullins has won the last three runnings of the Santa Anita Derby, horses like Castledale and Choctaw Nation are still minority members of the barn. Mullins has an active claiming life, fueled primarily by patron Bob Bone, who truly loves the action.

"I guess I do too," Mullins said. "But it would be nice to scale back someday and concentrate on a little better kind of horses. The challenge is finding them."

Castledale was a modest Irish purchase engineered by former trainer and TVG commentator Frank Lyons, who sold an 85 percent share to longtime Mullins client Greg Knee. Choctaw Nation was a Bob Bone claim, for $40,000, who had the benefit of breaking and early training at the hands of Bruce Headley.

"Anyway, I still like working with claiming horses, because you never stop learning from them," Mullins added.

To that end, the Mullins dance card on Sunday will include horses running for $80,000, $25,000, and $16,000, in addition to the San Diego and the Eddie Read. Win or lose, they will all eat the same that night.