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DEL MAR : Match Race Brings a Dash of Fascination


DEL MAR — Match races are as old as thoroughbred horse racing. In fact, match races are much older than thoroughbred horse racing. They might have predated the wheel, when men realized that a thing called a horse could transport them from their caves to the nearest 7-Eleven.

"Organized" match races are a bit more recent in origin, but still predate modern racing times. A horse called American Eclipse won match races in 1822 and 1823, the first in Washington, D.C., and the second on Long Island. The Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875.

There have been classic matches of famous horses, such as Nashua and Swaps in 1955, and there have been provincial showdowns of little interest anywhere but where they took place. They have been run at classic distances and they have been contested at distances little longer than quarter horses run.

One of the most famous, to be sure, was made legendary by tragedy. Ruffian, an unbeaten filly, was destroyed after she broke down in a 1975 match race against Foolish Pleasure, a colt.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, match races waned. Only eight have been run since. The ninth will be run Sunday at Del Mar, pairing a couple of speedy 4-year-old fillies--Soviet Problem and Mamselle Bebette.

The racing world was not crying for this pairing. Del Mar is simply trying new concepts, and this fits the agenda.

"We're just trying to do different things," said Joe Harper, Del Mar's president and general manager. "Match races are always intriguing. Maybe we'll attract some new fans."

One of the entrants, Soviet Problem, will be involved in her second match race this year. She went head to head against Lazor at Golden Gate Fields in May, winning by 4 1/2 lengths. That was the first such race in California since Chris Evert, the horse, defeated Miss Musket over 1 1/4 miles at Hollywood Park 20 years ago.

Del Mar's little experiment will be run over five furlongs, hardly a classic distance, which will eliminate, in a sense, the likelihood of a tactical race.

These are speedballs. Bettors could pull the handle on a slot machine and get the results in only slightly less time than it will take these fillies to go five furlongs.

"Tactics?" said jockey Corey Nakatani, who will ride trainer Jack Van Berg's Mamselle Bebette. "I can't talk about my strategy, but I will say this mare can go either way. She can rate or go to the lead. My mare can do anything."

One thing his mare is not likely to do in this race is rate, which is to say let Soviet Problem get out ahead and try to come from behind.

"I know I can't let (Soviet Problem) get an easy lead," Nakatani said. "I've got to put pressure on her."

Chris McCarron, Soviet Problem's jockey, has never ridden in a match race, but he was ready with a tactical parallel.

"I'm on a speed horse," he said. "Say I'm in a five-furlong or three-quarter mile race and there's only one other horse with speed. That's the closest comparison I can make."

So it's a matter of going for it out of the gate?

"I won't enter the race saying this is what I'm going to do," McCarron said. "I'll race it like I race all races--with an open mind."

There simply is not much time to make adjustments in such a dash.

"I love 1 1/2-mile races," McCarron said, laughing. "You can employ some strategy and you have time to recover from a mistake, provided it's from the beginning to middle. A mistake at the eighth pole would be difficult to make up."

McCarron will be getting his prerace instructions from Greg Gilchrist, Soviet Problem's trainer and a "veteran" of that match race victory at Golden Gate.

"If both horses feel and do the same, the start is all-important," Gilchrist said. "What you get at the start might make the difference at the finish. You get a half-length at the start, it may be worth a half-length at the finish. This isn't a race where you'll tell the jockey to take your horse back a couple of lengths at the start. It'll be an all-out sprint."

It may not be surprising that Gilchrist numbers himself among those who would like to see more match races.

"There's a mystique about them," he said. "That seems like the only thing anyone wants to talk about.

Gilchrist does have a suggestion for those who want to bet on the race and maximize their earnings, though it may not sit well with Del Mar racing officials.

"Both horses went off at 3-5 up north," he mused. "The only way to get even money will be to find someone who likes the other horse and bet with him."

One on one.

Horse Racing Notes

The presence of Sardula, Del Mar's 1993 horse of the meeting, has scared off competition for Sunday's Del Mar Oaks and fattened the field for Saturday's Sandy Blue Handicap. Making the switch are Dancing Mirage, Musical Pal, Wood Of Bin and Solar Beam. Dancing Mirage's trainer, Rodney Rash, explained: "She won't have to run against the heavies." . . . The Pat O'Brien Breeders' Cup Handicap, later on Saturday's card, has come up light with only a five-horse field: D'Hallevant, Recommendation, Subtle Trouble, J.F. Williams and Minjinsky.

Lykatill Hil and Sea Cadet are top-weighted for today's Windy Sands Handicap, and Sea Cadet is the morning-line favorite at 2-1. . . . Private Persuasion, a 3-year-old, won Thursday's $51,000 feature race for older fillies and mares over 1 1/16 miles on the turf. . . . Trainer Bill Shoemaker turns 63 today.

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