07/22/2005 12:00AM

Sweet trip up front?

Sweet Return, getting a bath at Del Mar on Friday, has earned both of his Grade 1 victories by going wire to wire. He comes off a victory in the Grade 1 Whittingham Handicap.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The strongest horses in the West Coast turf division collide Sunday in the Grade 1 at Del Mar, where the only thing missing is a pace rival for Sweet Return.

Grade 1 milers Castledale and Singletary pose the main late challenges in the 1 1/8-mile Read, but as trainer Ron McAnally considered the lack of speed in the race, he was reminded of the slow fractions Sweet Return set winning the 2003 Hollywood Derby.

"Three-quarters in 1:17 . . . I'd like to see that Sunday," McAnally said, "especially on a turf course as fast as this one."

McAnally may get his wish, or close to it. Sweet Return enters the Read as the lone front-runner, and while he does not require the lead, it does give him an advantage - both of his Grade 1 victories were achieved wire to wire.

Winner of the Grade 1 last out, Sweet Return would tighten his grip on the California turf division Sunday by winning the $400,000 Read, which has seven starters, including longshots A to the Z, Fourty Niners Son, Fast and Furious, and Qsar. The Read is race 8; the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap for older dirt horses is race 2.

Sweet Return has won six races and $1.2 million from 25 starts, and adapts to any pace scenario.

"He doesn't really need the lead, it's just the way the race comes up," McAnally said.

Alex Solis rides Sweet Return, whose last start was June 11. "We've had a little space between races this time, and that does him good," McAnally said.

A good effort by Sweet Return would send him to the Arlington Million, a race in which McAnally could have two starters.

McAnally still has high hopes for Fast and Furious, who ran sixth in the Grade 2 American Handicap at Hollywood. Plagued by chronic quarter cracks, Fast and Furious has raced four times in the United States - a troubled fifth last year in the Del Mar Derby, a second and third in subsequent Grade 1's, and a dud last time.

"I still think he's a good horse," McAnally said. "He's good looking, has good breeding, and the only bad race, really, was his last race. Victor [Espinoza] came back and said the track was just too hard for his feet."

Fast and Furious was a listed stakes winner in France, and his close finishes against top U.S. foes suggest he is a live longshot Sunday.

But there is one problem. "Unfortunately, he's the kind of horse that needs a little pace up front, and it doesn't look like he's doing to get it," McAnally said.

It is the same dilemma facing Castledale and Singletary. Both are closers, and neither has won a turf race beyond 1 1/16 miles. Castledale won the Shoemaker Mile last out. His trainer, Jeff Mullins, was asked if the additional furlong is a valid handicapping concern.

"I don't really think so," Mullins said. "It's all about timing with this horse. He'll run all day, but he only has a quarter-mile move in him."

Castledale, winner of the Santa Anita Derby last year, established himself this year as a top grass horse by winning the Grade 2 San Francisco Handicap in April at Bay Meadows, followed by his off-the-pace win in the Shoemaker.

Castledale, who has won five races and $840,423 from 16 starts, could be further compromised by his outside post. But most grass races are won in the final quarter-mile.

"He's got a hell of a kick," Mullins said. "The longer you wait, the stronger it is."

Rene Douglas rides Castledale.

Singletary has won only 1 of 3 since his Breeders' Cup Mile upset last fall. But he had an excuse last time when fourth as the 9-5 favorite in the Shoemaker. He was too close to the fast pace, and the race was dominated by stretch-runners. On Sunday, Singletary is expected to be rated.

"I want David [Flores] taking this horse back," trainer Don Chatlos said. "And let's see who can finish from the three-eighths to the wire. If Singletary makes the lead any time there, I like my chances."

Singletary has won seven races and $1.5 million from 19 starts. Chatlos said the Read will be his only start at Del Mar. Plans are for him to run in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile, then aim for a repeat in the Breeders' Cup.

The field

Eddie Read Handicap
Purse: $400,000; 1 1/8 miles, turf; Grade 1

1SingletaryD. Flores1202-1
2Sweet ReturnA. Solis1205-2
3Fourty Niners SonC. Nakatani1148-1
4A to the ZG. Gomez1188-1
5Fast and FuriousV. Espinoza11712-1
6QsarT. Baze1128-1
7CastledaleR. Douglas1217-2

* Odds by Art Gropper