Updated on 09/15/2011 1:42PM

Skimming just the surface . . .

Benoit & Associates
Skimming is the front-running favorite for Sunday's San Diego at Del Mar.

DEL MAR, Calif. - It is a Grade 2 with a Grade 1 field. It is a $250,000 prep for a $1 million race, but make no mistake - the San Diego Handicap on Sunday at Del Mar is the deepest handicap race this year in Southern California.

Seven starters, hoping to press ahead to the Aug. 19 Pacific Classic, entered the San Diego. Six of them will be chasing Del Mar terror Skimming, the only pure speed horse and a two-time stakes winner here last summer.

Without a serious pace foe in the 1 1/16-mile San Diego, Skimming will be favored over an outstanding field. It includes Grade 1 winner Captain Steve; Futural, the disqualified Hollywood Gold Cup winner; Budroyale, runner-up in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic but unraced in 14 months; and Freedom Crest, a graded stakes winner making his second start back.

Along with outsiders Dig for It and Spicy Stuff, the field is strong, and revolves around the front-running favorite. Instructions from Skimming's trainer Bobby Frankel to jockey Garrett Gomez will be brief: "Just break and let him go, that's his style," said Frankel.

Skimming, owned by Juddmonte Farms, is starting for the fourth time this year, following a pattern similar to last year when he scored surprisingly brilliant wins in the San Diego and Pacific Classic. As it turns out, Skimming is a genuine Del Mar freak.

"It's a gimmick track, a horse-for-course track for sure," Frankel said. "Horses who run good down here . . . they run good here every year. I don't know if it's the air, the surface, or the track circumference, but some horses just like it here."

Gomez was criticized for his ride on Skimming in the Hollywood Gold Cup, when he played cat-and-mouse with a claiming horse instead of opening up. Skimming finished third, placed second via disqualification. There will be no tactical mistakes Sunday - Skimming will be loose on the lead. He should race gate to wire.

Captain Steve seeks redemption, one start after a premature move led to his fourth-place finish as the 3-5 Gold Cup favorite. Gary Stevens accepts responsibility. "I rode a bad race, I was forced into a move that I didn't want to make," he said. "I felt like I was riding with a bounty on my head."

Stevens was fanned wide early, then slipped inside where "I was going to creep in, until [Gomez on Skimming] made a left-hand turn. I had to either go, or get dropped." Stevens went. "It turned into a half-mile sprint, and no horse can move for a half-mile." Captain Steve was done at the quarter pole. Owned by Mike Pegram and trained by Bob Baffert, Captain Steve has won nine races and $6.7 million from 23 starts, including the Dubai World Cup.

Rags-to-riches Budroyale is racing for the first time in 14 months, after fracturing a shoulder in December 1999. The 8-year-old has trained aggressively, and returns with ample credentials. A multiple Grade 2 winner with 17 wins from 49 starts, Budroyale has come a long way from the claiming ranks, but it is fair to say that he may need the start.

"I'm a little worried in the back of my mind that he didn't run great off the bench before," trainer Ted H. West said. "He acts like he's been dying to get back to the races, but I don't know if he's a horse that runs well fresh. It might take him a couple races."

While San Pasqual winner Freedom Crest has a chance off a sharp second-place comeback in the Grade 2 Bel Air, it was Futural who emerged from the Hollywood spring-summer meet as the circuit's top handicap horse. He is not in a must-win situation Sunday.

"I wanted to give him a race over the track," trainer Craig Dollase said. "He doesn't have to win, he just has to produce a good effort, and we'll go on to the next one."