08/25/2004 12:00AM

Wild Babe tests his elders

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Already a stakes winner at the meeting, Wild Babe starts in a $68,000 optional claimer at Del Mar on Friday. Friday's race might be more difficult than the first leg of the Oceanside Stakes, which Wild Babe won on July 21.

led throughout the Oceanside, holding off a late run from Semi Lost, who returned to finish second in the Grade 3 La Jolla Handicap on Aug. 15.

In Friday's seventh race over a mile on turf, Wild Babe breaks from the rail against a field of five older horses. Wild Babe is the lone 3-year-old in the field.

Trainer Jerry Dutton could have pointed Wild Babe for the $400,000 Del Mar Derby Sept. 6, but opted for Friday's race because it is shorter than the Del Mar Derby and because owner Larry Williams may start Lucky Pulpit in the Del Mar Derby.

"I think this race fits him better," Dutton said.

Wild Babe is likely to set the pace. He could face early pressure from , the expected favorite. Trained by Bobby Frankel for Michael Bello, Royal Price won a $54,000 allowance race over a mile on turf at Hollywood Park July 18 in his last start. Royal Price was group stakes-placed in Germany last year.

Trainer Eoin Harty starts , who is coming off a win. A closer, Ya Lajwaad scored by a neck in an allowance race over 1 1/16 miles on turf Aug. 1, his first start in nearly four months.

A to the Z has had a well-traveled campaign in 2004, having started at four tracks. A to the Z, 4, won the Sunland Park Handicap in the slop in April, finished fifth in the Charlie Iles Mile Handicap at The Downs at Albuquerque in May, third in the Dallas Turf Cup Handicap at Lone Star Park in June, and sixth in the Grade 2 Bowling Green Handicap at Belmont Park on July 17.

Father Thames and Van Rouge are stalkers. Father Thames was a stakes winner in England in 2002, but has lost his last seven starts. He was fourth in an optional claimer Aug. 12, his first start of 2004.

Van Rouge won the Grade 3 Ascot Handicap at Bay Meadows in 2002. Van Rouge has had one victory in 11 subsequent starts - an allowance race at Hollywood Park in 2003. He was fourth in an allowance race at Hollywood Park on June 23.