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Three's a Crowd for Frankel : Horse racing: Trainer finds himself with trio of front-runners in $1-million Pacific Classic. Best Pal is favored to win.


DEL MAR — A year ago, trainer Bobby Frankel either was surprised by his horse or was hustling the opposition.

When Frankel entered Missionary Ridge in the Pacific Classic, he said that the horse might be good enough to finish third. Defensive Play, Frankel's other starter, figured to have a better chance of winning.

But when Jolie's Halo, the 3-1 third choice and one of the front-runners in the field, went to his knees leaving the gate and dropped jockey Edgar Prado, tactics for the Classic changed. Kent Desormeaux hustled Missionary Ridge to a comfortable early lead and they were never headed, winning the $550,000 purse and beating stablemate Defensive Play, the second-place finisher, by 3 1/2 lengths.

Missionary Ridge's wire-to-wire performance was not unlike that of another Frankel trainee, Marquetry, who held on in 1991 to win the Hollywood Gold Cup and pay $56.80, highest win payoff in the race's history.

Marquetry and Missionary Ridge will be running for Frankel today, along with Bertrando, in the $1-million Pacific Classic.

When Charlie Whittingham runs three horses in a stake--he ran 1-2-3 with Kennedy Road, Quack and Cougar II in the 1973 Hollywood Gold Cup--his stock line is: "We've got them surrounded."

But for Frankel, three starters mean three times the worry and he has said that Marquetry's owners, Morley and Dale Engelson, would be better off keeping their 6-year-old in the barn. He also says that Missionary Ridge, who is not fast enough to vie for the lead in this field, will need a "fantastic finish" to score a stakes repeat.

That leaves Bertrando, who won the San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita in February, but since is winless in a demanding, five-race cross-country campaign.

"If I had my druthers, Marquetry would be on the lead," Frankel said. "But that's where Bertrando is supposed to be. As a result we're changing the style of one of the horses. It's a no-win situation."

The three Frankel horses have different owners but will go off as an entry because Frankel is a partner with the Engelsons in the ownership of Marquetry, which forces the three to be linked in the betting.

Frankel was unhappy with the way Alex Solis rode Bertrando last time, to a third-place finish as the 9-10 favorite in the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, so Gary Stevens has today's assignment. Stevens had a shot at riding Bertrando in the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park on May 31, when they were challenged by Alydeed through quick early fractions before being run down by Ibero in the stretch.

"Bertrando's a one-pace horse," Frankel said. "If a jock tries to slow him down, he won't finish. He won't finish any better if you slow him down, that's just his story. In the Iselin, the jock fooled around with a longshot (Berkley Fitz). I thought the ride was real bad. He should be on the lead in this race for sure."

Valley Crossing, also entered in the Pacific Classic, ended a 14-race losing streak by winning the Iselin, beating Devil His Due by a head and Bertrando by 2 1/2 lengths. Best Pal, undefeated in four Del Mar starts, including the 1991 Classic, and making his first start since a 2 1/2-length victory over Bertrando in the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 3, is the 4-5 morning-line favorite, followed by the Frankel entry at 9-5.

"Bertrando ran his eyeballs out again in the Gold Cup," said Gary Jones, Best Pal's trainer. "My horse had trouble getting by him."

Besides Best Pal, who will probably be stalking the leaders before he makes his move, another obstacle for Bertrando is the No. 1 post position, which has been the toughest spot to win from in dirt races at Del Mar this season.

This track bias has been a bone of contention for numerous Del Mar trainers, none more vocal than Frankel, who is never bashful about criticizing track surfaces. When Marquetry won the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1991, Frankel prepared him at Santa Anita.

"I can't figure this track out," Frankel said on Wednesday at the post-position draw. "One day it's fast, the next day it's slow. And the inside is deep, which is not real good for Bertrando."

Attempting to qualify Frankel's remarks, track announcer Trevor Denman said: "I guess if you're winning races, the track's all right, and if you're not, it's not."

"I've been winning races," Frankel said, "and the track's still lousy."

Responding to Frankel's criticism, track foreman Steve Wood said: "I think the world of Bobby Frankel and have a ton of respect for him and his opinions. I will admit that I've erred a couple of times this season, but overall I think my judgment has been good.

"The bottom line is the safety of the horses. In the first 20 racing days, we've only had the ambulance out twice for horses that have broken down. And the national average is once every two days."

Corey Black, who will ride Best Pal, said that Wood and his crew have improved the surface recently.

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