07/23/2004 12:00AM

Right spot for Special Ring's return

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PHOENIX - You could say Sunday's Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap will have a familiar Ring to it.

Defending champ Special Ring is set to make his long-awaited comeback in the Eddie Read, the event that really put him on the map. Special Ring had always hinted at significant ability, but it wasn't until the summer of 2002 when he blossomed, winning a Hollywood allowance and the restricted Wickerr with Beyers of 110 and 108. Those were his final starts of the year, and when he returned in the spring of 2003, he took aim at the big time.

He finished second in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile and in the Grade 2 American Handicap, both at Hollywood. In retrospect, his race in the American was even better than it looked, because the winner, by three-quarters of a length, was Candy Ride, who in his next race dismantled Medaglia d'Oro in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic.

Special Ring then went through the roof in the 2003 Eddie Read, romping by five and posting a 111 Beyer. Suddenly he was considered Breeders' Cup Mile material. He prepped for the BC Mile with a fourth in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile, and finished eighth after a troubled trip in the BC Mile. He came out of that race with a pulled muscle, and Sunday's Eddie Read is his first race back.

Special Ring, now 7, has been working up a storm for trainer Julio Canani. Canani has had great success with turf runners, having won the BC Mile with Silic and Val Royal. In fact, Canani has another horse in the Read, Bayamo, who looked so good winning the American Handicap a few weeks ago that jockey David Flores, the regular rider for both Special Ring and Bayamo, has opted for Bayamo for the 1 1/8-mile Eddie Read.

"Myself, I can't separate who I like better," Canani said. "I asked David who he wants to ride and he wants to ride Bayamo. But Special Ring is on his game, believe me, and he's the horse that they've got to catch."

When Special Ring won the Eddie Read last year, he set a course record of 1:45.87. He also set a Del Mar mark for a mile when he won the Wickerr Handicap by two lengths in 1:32.72.

"The race Special Ring ran in the Eddie Read was amazing," Canani said. "The two races he's run at Del Mar the last two years were very, very good. He blew out Monday and he had the best workout by 10 lengths. He loves the Del Mar grass course."

With Flores opting for Bayamo, Canani tabbed Victor Espinoza for Special Ring. Espinoza has had success with front-runners - remember his ride on War Emblem in the 2002 Kentucky Derby?

Of course, Special Ring better be ready. Not only must he deal with a very scary stablemate, but he also faces Sweet Return, winner of three straight graded stakes earlier this year, as well as 2002 Read winner Sarafan.

But if Canani is right, they will all have their work cut out trying to collar Special Ring, long layoff or not.

Rojo Toro ready to break out

Sunday's other big event at Del Mar, the Grade 1 Bing Crosby at six furlongs, brings out an interesting field. The West Coast sprint division is still something of a mish-mash. You have your usual suspects (Disturbingthepeace, Pohave, Kela, and last year's winner, Beau's Town) as well as those trying to break into the upper levels of the sprint division, like Court's in Session and Revello. But it's Rojo Toro who might be ready to emerge on top.

Trained by Bob Baffert, Rojo Toro has always promised more than he delivered. In his last start, Rojo Toro unleashed one of his best efforts. He dueled on the lead as a big price in the Triple Bend at Hollywood, but found furlong No. 7 and Pohave a bit too much to handle.

He finds himself at a different track today and shortens up a furlong. A big five-furlong drill a couple of days ago indicates he retains his edge and is feeling good.