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There's No Shortage of Seaside Stars

Azeri, Congaree and Kona Gold are among those expected to run during Del Mar meet that opens today.

July 23, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

DEL MAR — Saratoga might have Funny Cide and Empire Maker, but Del Mar has Azeri, Congaree, Golden Apples and Kona Gold. So no apologies are being heard as this seaside track prepares for today's 64th season opener.

While Funny Cide and Empire Maker, familiar protagonists from the Triple Crown, are gearing up for an August showdown at the Saratoga meet that also opens today, Del Mar is welcoming Azeri, the reigning horse of the year; Hollywood Gold Cup winner Congaree; and Eclipse Award winners Golden Apples and Kona Gold. All are expected to run here during the 43-day meet that ends on Sept. 10.

Azeri is scheduled to run on Aug. 10 in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap, a race she won last year en route to the national title. Meanwhile, her stablemate, Dublino, will battle Golden Apples and Tates Creek on Saturday in the $400,000 John C. Mabee Handicap, which is the first of five Grade I stakes at the meet. Dublino won last year's Del Mar Oaks.

Golden Apples, who won last year's Eclipse for best filly or mare on grass despite losing in the Breeders' Cup, will be ridden by Gary Stevens in the Mabee, which was known as the Ramona Handicap last year when Pat Valenzuela rode Golden Apples to a second-place finish.

Tates Creek, who's on a four-race win streak, will be ridden in the Mabee by Valenzuela, the favorite to repeat as riding champion here. Valenzuela, who won 46 races at Del Mar in 2002, is coming off consecutive riding titles at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Since 1990, Laffit Pincay, in 2001, and Alex Solis, in 1997, are the only other jockeys to pull off a title double at the two tracks. The last jockey to win titles at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar in the same year was Stevens in 1988.

Azeri's trainer, Laura de Seroux, had considered running the 5-year-old mare against males, either in the San Diego Handicap here on Aug. 3 or the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 2, but in the end a chance to threaten the 16-race win streaks by Citation and Cigar might mean more. Azeri, whose last win was in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, has won 13 of 14 overall and 10 in succession.

Kona Gold, a 9-year-old gelding, will try to win the Bing Crosby Handicap for the third time when the six-furlong sprint is run as a co-feature with the Mabee on Saturday. Among those to beat is Disturbingthepeace, last year's Crosby winner. Kona Gold won an Eclipse Award for sprinting in 2000, the year of his first Crosby win.

Congaree dispelled some doubts about his ability to run 1 1/4 miles when he won the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 13. Trainer Bob Baffert's 5-year-old will get another chance at that distance in the $1-million Pacific Classic on Aug. 24. Baffert has won the last six training titles at Del Mar and could tie Farrell Jones' record of seven straight (1960-66) with another championship. Baffert won the Pacific Classic with General Challenge in 1999.

Congaree's opposition in the Pacific Classic could come from Milwaukee Brew, Peace Rules, Candy Ride and Kudos. Milwaukee Brew, third in last year's Classic, and the 3-year-old Peace Rules are trained by Bobby Frankel, who has won Del Mar's richest race six times.

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Jockey Garrett Gomez, who won the Pacific Classic with Skimming in 2000 and 2001, has been ordered into a drug-diversion program after his arrest in Temecula on July 3. Charges against Gomez of being under the influence of drugs and being in possession of drug paraphernalia have been dropped.

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Del Mar 2003

* Schedule: 43 days (today through Sept. 10; dark Tuesdays).

* Post times: First post daily at 2 p.m. (except July 25 and Aug. 1, 8 and 15 at 4 p.m.; Aug. 22 and 29 and Sept. 5, 3:30 p.m.; and Aug. 24, 12:30 p.m.)

* Gates open: Noon weekdays and 11:30 a.m. weekends, opening and closing days (except July 25 and Aug. 1, 8 and 15, 2 p.m.; Aug. 22 and 29 and Sept. 25, 1:30 p.m.; and Aug. 24, 9 a.m.)

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