07/16/2006 11:00PM

Starting with high expectations

Porto Santo, training at Del Mar on Monday, makes his U.S. debut for Julio Canani in the Oceanside.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The resort atmosphere of Del Mar is fine for vacationing tourists, but handicappers and horsemen will not be satisfied until they cash a bet or win a race when the 43-day summer racing season begins Wednesday.

If there is an opening-day lock, it might be Porto Santo. A listed stakes winner in France, he makes his U.S. debut for trainer Julio Canani in race 8, the stronger division of the Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds at a mile on turf.

"His form is solid," said Canani. "He's been running with the best."

Has he ever. A half-brother to Grade 1-placed filly Gorella, Porto Santo has won 3 of 6, and last time out, May 14, he finished two lengths behind Stormy River, who went on to win a Group 1.

enters the Oceanside as the class of the field, with a race record surprisingly similar to Blackdoun, the Canani-trained import who won the Oceanside, La Jolla Handicap, and Del Mar Derby two summers ago. Porto Santo's main rivals include New Joysey Jeff, Obrigado, and Blazing Sunset.

David Milch purchased Porto Santo based on a recommendation from bloodstock agent Hubert Guy, and Porto Santo arrived in California in early June. Canani said Victor Espinoza has been working Porto Santo, whose small size is why Canani's stable help refer to the colt as "Northern Dancer." Talk about high expectations.

Hopes always run high at Del Mar, where the racing program is focused on turf and 2-year-olds. The meet offers a fresh start and an opportunity for something new. Trainer Richard Mandella will try both in race 6, the first division of the Oceanside, in which One Union switches to grass for the first time.

Mandella said he hopes to turn things around after a 4-for-33 meet at Hollywood Park.

"Things just didn't work out," he said.

They could work out just fine Wednesday if One Union handles turf after winning 3 of 5 on dirt.

"I don't seen any reason why [grass] should be a negative," Mandella said, citing One Union's pedigree. Sired by Dixie Union, One Union is out of Onceinabluemamoon, a Grade 2 winner on grass.

Winner of a four-horse allowance sprint in his June 21 comeback, One Union is using the Oceanside as a stepping-stone to something bigger.

"I need a prep for the Haskell and want to get a race local," Mandella said, explaining the switch to turf.

Mandella said he left open the possibility that One Union could remain on turf for the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby on Sept. 3.

In order to win the Oceanside, One Union must put away front-runner The Five J's and hold off Get Funky, an improving John Sadler trainee who should fall into a good trip right behind the speed.

There are six Grade 1 races on the Del Mar schedule, including the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 20, in which skeptics will line up to wager against a vulnerable Lava Man. There are two Grade 1 turf races this weekend: the John C. Mabee Handicap for fillies and mares on Saturday and the Eddie Read Handicap on Sunday.

Carthage could knock off Bordonaro on July 30 in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Handicap for sprinters; American Oaks winner Wait a While is expected to return to California for the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks for 3-year-old turf fillies Aug. 19; and 2-year-old fillies run in the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante, moved to closing weekend and scheduled for Sept. 4.

Racing secretary Tom Robbins said there are more 2-year-olds ready to run than in past years - 220 nominated to the closing-day (Sept. 6) Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity, won last year by Stevie Wonderboy.

With the Hollywood Park track closed for summer and the Santa Anita main track temporarily closed, Del Mar has become a tough ticket. "More people are trying to get in here than normally would be, and it has put pressure [on Del Mar]," Robbins said.

Del Mar has room for 2,200 horses; Robbins said the barns are filled to capacity.

A familiar theme resurfaces in the first race of the meet, when trainer Mike Mitchell starts class-dropper Chester's Choice in the 1 1/16-mile claiming race. Mitchell, the third-leading trainer at Del Mar with 353 wins, said he has no qualms dropping Chester's Choice to $16,000 after claiming him two months ago for $40,000.

"I paid way too much for him," Mitchell said. "People know the racing is going to be tougher here and tend to drop horses lower than they are worth. Every time at Del Mar when I think I'm taking an edge, I see Jeff [Mullins] taking a bigger drop; [Doug] O'Neill is dropping off buildings, and [Bill] Spawr is always waiting for Del Mar."

Mitchell starts four horses Wednesday. As for Chester's Choice, "I think he'll win, and I put Patrick [Valenzuela] on him because he was the match-race rider."

Chester's Choice beat Woke Up Dreamin in a match race two summers ago at Del Mar.

At a glance

RACING SCHEDULE: Wednesday through Sept. 6. Dark Tuesdays.

POST TIME: 2 p.m. daily; 4 p.m. July 21, 28 and Aug 4, 11; 3:30 p.m., Aug. 18, 25 and Sept. 1; 1 p.m., Aug. 20.

ADMISSIONS: (includes program): General $6, clubhouse $10.

PARKING: General $6, valet $20.

LOCATION: West of Interstate-5 at Via de la Valle, 20 miles north of San Diego.

PHONE: (858) 755-1141.

INTERNET: www.DelMarRacing.com

2006 stakes schedule

Wed.,July 19Oceanside Stake3YO1 mile (T)$100,000
Fri.,July 21CTBA Stakes2YO F*5 1/2 furlongs125,000
Sat.,July 22John C. Mabee Handicap (G1)F&M, 3YO & Up1 1/8 miles (T)400,000
Sat.,July 22San Diego Handicap (G2)3YO & Up1 1/16 miles300,000
Sun.,July 23Fleet Treat Stakes3YO F*7 furlongs100,000
Sun.,July 23Eddie Read Handicap (G1)3YO & Up1 1/8 miles (T)400,000
Wed.,July 26Graduation Stakes2YO*5 1/2 furlongs125,000
Sat.,July 29San Clemente Handicap (G2)3YO F1 mile (T)150,000
Sun.,July 30Bing Crosby Handicap (G1)3YO & Up6 furlongs300,000
Fri.,Aug. 4California Dreamin' Handicap 3YO & Up*1 1/16 miles (T)125,000
Sat.,Aug. 5Sorrento Stakes (G3)2YO F6 1/2 furlongs150,000
Sun.,Aug. 6Clement L. Hirsch Handicap (G2)F&M, 3YO & Up1 1/16 miles300,000
Fri.,Aug. 11Real Good Deal Stakes3YO*7 furlongs100,000
Sat.,Aug. 12La Jolla Handicap (G2)F&M, 3YO & Up1 1/16 miles150,000
Sun.,Aug. 13Best Pal Stakes (G2)2YO6 1/2 furlongs150,000
Fri.,Aug. 18Rancho Bernardo Handicap (G3)F&M, 3YO & Up6 1/2 furlongs200,000
Sat.,Aug. 19Del Mar Oaks (G1)3YO F1 1/8 miles (T)400,000
Sun.,Aug. 20Pacific Classic (G1)3YO & Up1 1/4 miles1,000,000
Sun.,Aug. 20Pat O'Brien BC Handicap (G2)3YO & Up7 furlongs300,000
Sat.,Aug. 26Del Mar BC Mile (G2)3YO & Up1 mile (T) 400,000
Sun.,Aug. 27Del Mar Handicap (G2)3YO & Up1 3/8 miles (T)250,000
Wed.,Aug. 30Generous Portion Stakes2YO F*6 furlongs100,000
Fri.,Sept. 1Torrey Pines Stakes3YO F1 mile100,000
Sat.,Sept. 2El Cajon Stakes3YO1 mile100,000
Sat.,Sept. 2Palomar BC Handicap (G2)F&M, 3YO & Up1 1/16 miles (T)200,000
Sun.,Sept. 3Solana Beach HandicapF&M, 3YO & Up*1 mile (T)125,000
Sun.,Sept. 3Del Mar Derby (G2)3YO1 1/8 miles (T)400,000
Mon.,Sept. 4Del Mar Debutante (G1)2YO F7 furlongs250,000
Mon.,Sept. 4I'm Smokin Stakes2YO*6 furlongs100,000
Wed.,Sept. 6Del Mar Futurity (G2)2YO7 furlongs250,000