08/26/2005 12:00AM

Two grudge matches on turf


DEL MAR, Calif. - There are scores to settle Sunday in the Grade 2, $250,000 Del Mar Handicap at 1 3/8 miles on turf.

will try to avenge his three-quarter-length loss to Always First in the Grade 2 Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park. That race was decided at the quarter pole, where Runaway Dancer rallied wide and Always First cut the corner.

finished one-two in the restricted Escondido Handicap last month at Del Mar, but that race was decided in the stewards' booth. Sarafan was disqualified and placed second after a minor bumping incident in deep stretch.

The Del Mar Handicap attracted 12 entrants; 10 will start on a narrow turf course. The temporary rails are at the outermost 14-foot setting. It does not benefit deep closers such as Runaway Dancer, yet he enters as arguably the best horse in the race.

"When he's right, he's always right there," trainer Dan Hendricks said. "And he's right."

Runaway Dancer was purchased privately for $50,000 in early 2003, and this year blossomed into a consistent marathon specialist. A stakes winner last year at 5, Runaway Dancer won the Grade 3 Jim Murray Handicap this May before running second in the Sunset Handicap. In that race, Runaway Dancer was fanned wide late, finished strongly, but fell short by three-quarters of a length. Runaway Dancer has won 6 races and $501,038 from 23 starts. Garrett Gomez rides again.

Victor Espinoza gave Always First a perfect ride in the Sunset, winning with a ground-saving rally into the lane. This summer at Del Mar, Espinoza's win rate in turf races is 8 percent; his win rate on the main track is 26 percent. Trained by Neil Drysdale, Always First has won 3 races and $189,417 from 10 starts. The Sunset was his first graded stakes.

Laura's Lucky Boy, 5 for 13, made his first try at a marathon distance in the Escondido, and trainer Richard Mandella said he believes Laura's Lucky Boy can improve. "He came out great, and with that experience under his belt he could get even better," Mandella said.

Corey Nakatani, who is winning turf races this season at a meet-high 27 percent, rides Laura's Lucky Boy.

Sarafan has won a Del Mar turf stake five straight years. An 8-year-old gelding with 10 wins and earnings of $2.6 million from 48 starts, he is ridden by Alex Solis. Drysdale trains.