10/03/2003 12:00AM

Special Ring clear favorite in Oak Tree Mile


ARCADIA, Calif. - One prep race and three weeks separate Special Ring from a start in the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

The prep race comes in Sunday's $300,000 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile. Then, the waiting game begins for Prestonwood Farm and trainer Julio Canani.

"It's up to him," Canani said. "I don't worry about the Oak Tree Mile."

Widely considered the top American hope for the BC Mile, Special Ring will be a heavy favorite in Sunday's Grade 2 race on turf, but there is no shortage of challengers.

The field of nine includes Sarafan, the winner of the 2002 Eddie Read Handicap; Medecis, who was ninth in the 2002 BC Mile; Century City, who won the Arcadia Handicap here last April; and Mountain Rage, a four-time stakes winner on turf.

In addition, there will be ample support for Designed for Luck, the winner of the Live the Dream Handicap at Del Mar on Sept. 10.

Many of those horses need big races to justify a trip to the Breeders' Cup.

The pace is expected to be hot. Apace Wings, who has yet to win a stakes, is a confirmed front-runner, while Special Ring is effective from the front.

Canani insists that Special Ring is not one dimensional, mentioning a win in the 2002 Wickerr Handicap at Del Mar when the gelding closed from fourth.

"He's a different horse than he was two years ago," Canani said. "He's more mellow."

Canani has been raving about Special Ring's condition all year. The BC Mile was a goal for 2002 but that campaign ended in the summer because of an ankle injury.

"They said to give him three months, and I gave him five," Canani said.

This year, Special Ring finished second in the Shoemaker Mile and American Handicap during the Hollywood Park summer meeting and set a course record for 1 1/8 miles on turf in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar on July 27.

"After that I backed off and gave him time," Canani said. "He does it all on his own. He's doing good."

A win would only enhance Special Ring's reputation for the BC Mile.

"You've got to be lucky," Canani said of the Breeders' Cup. "I don't have to do anything, just work him a couple of half-miles."

Designed for Luck is searching for his first graded stakes win of the year. Trained by Vladimir Cerin, Designed for Luck has shown improvement since returning from a hock injury suffered in the spring of 2002.

"He's stronger and stronger every day," Cerin said. "He can go to the lead or sit off. My horse will keep improving."

Cerin said he realizes that racing against Special Ring will provide a gauge of where Designed for Luck fits.

"I think he's the favorite for the Breeders' Cup," Cerin said. "He's the yardstick."