07/23/2004 12:00AM

Special Ring a serious repeat threat

Special Ring gets in some training at Del Mar on Thursday in preparation for his start in Sunday's Eddie Read, a race he won last year.

DEL MAR, Calif. - How soon they forget. Special Ring parked last year in the Grade 1 , and in 2002 he smoked a mile on the Del Mar turf in a course-record 1:32.72. But when the 7-year-old gelding returns Sunday from a nine-month layoff, his fan club has thinned while his competition has grown.

Ten of the top grass runners in California entered the $400,000 Read, including Special Ring's stablemate Bayamo, Grade 1 winners Sarafan and Sweet Return, and upstarts Vangelis and King of Happiness. At 1 1/8 miles, in a race with little speed, a fast-working Special Ring looks tough to beat.

But does the veteran still have what it takes at age 7? "Why shouldn't he?" trainer Julio Canani said. "He's a good horse . . . he's still a good horse."

Beau's Town faces the same dilemma Sunday when he tries for a repeat in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Handicap at six furlongs. The Crosby is race 2, the Read is race 8.

And if Special Ring is still a top horse, why would jockey David Flores ditch him to ride Bayamo?

"That was his call, not mine," said Canani.

Flores cannot be faulted for taking the "now" horse. Bayamo scored a powerful win three weeks ago in the Grade 2 American Handicap, has raced only nine times, and has much upside potential. Although a nine-time winner, Special Ring has run 25 times, two starts last fall were poor, and has not raced in nine months. But he has trained super, and Canani said he is ready to fire.

Victor Espinoza rides Special Ring, who benefits from the pace scenario.

Canani said that if Special Ring was not coupled with Bayamo, "we could cash a ticket." Plenty of bettors will go ahead and take the short price - Bayamo and Special Ring are owned by Prestonwood Farm, and coupled in the betting.

While the Read is the start of a campaign for Special Ring, it is Bayamo's fourth start since May 5. Canani said that after Sunday Bayamo will be freshened to point for the Breeders' Cup Mile. Special Ring, if he is as good as last year, also would point to the BC Mile.

Others are using the Read as a prep for the Arlington Million including Sweet Return, Sarafan, and Vangelis. Sweet Return has not raced since the Shoemaker Mile on May 31.

"He needed a little break," trainer Ron McAnally said, adding that Sweet Return has put on weight during the time off.

Does he need the race? "No, he runs well fresh," McAnally said. Jerry Bailey rides Sweet Return, who should get a good trip saving ground behind the pace.

Sarafan is 3 for 3 at Del Mar, including the 2002 Read. Though he was no match for Bayamo on July 4, a four-pound weight swing and the benefit of a prep race could bring them closer. Sarafan "always needs his first run," trainer Neil Drysdale said, adding that the 9-for-40 veteran has improved since his return.

Drysdale also starts King of Happiness, whose fast allowance win one start back was followed by a fourth-place finish in the Shoemaker Mile. The issue for King of Happiness is whether he can get 1 1/8 miles.

In the Shoemaker, King of Happiness was positioned farther off the pace than planned, and rallied to fourth. If he can establish a forward running position under Kent Desormeaux, he is eligible to spring an upset.

Vangelis was compromised by slow fractions June 12 in the Grade 1 Whittingham, and rallied from ninth to fourth in a race that marked his first U.S. start since last summer. Transferred following the Whittingham to trainer Bobby Frankel, Vangelis could earn a ticket to the Arlington Million with a big race Sunday.

Assistant trainer Humberto Ascanio said that Vangelis "has been training really good. I'm really happy with the way he's coming to the race. I just hope there's some pace in the race."

Alex Solis will ride stretch-runner Vangelis, a Group 2 winner in France.