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DEL MAR : Trainer Cross Happy to Have Avoided Claim

TIMES STAFF WRITER

That white question mark on the back of jockey Corey Nakatani’s fire-red silks prompted an emphatic answer Sunday when Approach The Bench, closing in the middle of the track, won the $322,250 Eddie Read Handicap by a neck over Fastness.

Approach The Bench, an Irish-bred 6-year-old whose career started in Europe, had made only two starts in the United States and could have been claimed for $125,000 from a race that he won at Hollywood Park on July 4. Approach The Bench’s last stakes victory and his only one in 1993 came a year ago in a minor race in Ireland.

The favorite in the Read, Blues Traveller at 9-5, held the lead in mid-stretch, but Fastness passed him and appeared to be on his way to victory before Approach The Bench caught him in the final two strides.

Fastness, who recovered from knee surgery to win last month at Hollywood Park, held on for second place, a head in front of Johann Quatz, who closed even farther out from the rail than Approach The Bench. Blues Traveller, who had been three for three in the United States at the Read distance of 1 1/8 miles on grass, finished fourth, beaten by almost four lengths.

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Approach The Bench, owned by John Mulhern, was timed in 1:48 4/5 and paid $17.20 to win. He carried 113 pounds, lightest impost in the field of seven and four pounds less than the three highweights. Since the Read was first run in 1974, only one horse has won the race carrying a lighter weight.

Approach The Bench’s trainer, 39-year-old Richard Cross, scored his first major victory. The English-born Cross assembled his California stable in 1983 after working under Luca Cumani in England and John Russell in the United States.

“If I’d lost him (for the $125,000 claim), I’d be Richard Cross rest in peace,” Cross said of Approach The Bench. He had considered running him in Wednesday’s $75,000 Escondido, but chose the richer race because of the strong way the horse finished in his last start. Sunday’s victory, Approach The Bench’s seventh in 40 starts, was worth $187,250.

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Trainer Neil Drysdale said Eddie Delahoussaye made five riding mistakes that contributed to Hollywood Wildcat’s loss by a head to Flawlessly in Saturday’s $316,000 Ramona Handicap.

The most crucial was at the head of the stretch, when Hollywood Wildcat found herself blocked by three horses on the inside while Flawlessly and Chris McCarron had an open path on the outside.

“If Eddie just follows McCarron at that point, then Chris doesn’t know what to do,” Drysdale said. “Instead, Chris was able to keep my horse locked in, and she lost her momentum by the time she got clear on the outside.”

Delahoussaye, who has won six stakes with Hollywood Wildcat since the Eclipse Award-winning filly came to Drysdale from Florida last year, has had a rocky year that has been interrupted by a virus that caused dizziness, nasal surgery and then root-canal work a few days ago. But he still ranks seventh on the national purse list with a total of almost $5 million.

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“I’ll take the blame,” Delahoussaye said of the Ramona. “I was probably overconfident with the filly. When I had to wheel her out, that might have cost us the race. I did what I did for a reason, but sometimes things don’t work out. I’m allowed to mess up every once in a while. Everyone else does.”

Hollywood Wildcat has three victories and two seconds in five grass races. To renew the rivalry with Flawlessly, the champion turf distaffer the last two years, Drysdale would have to follow her to Arlington International for the Beverly D on Aug. 27. Flawlessly won that stake a year ago. Another option for Drysdale would be to return Hollywood Wildcat to dirt and give her a campaign that might lead to Churchill Downs in November for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Hollywood Wildcat won last year’s Distaff at Santa Anita, clinching the title for 3-year-old fillies on dirt.

Horse Racing Notes

Flawlessly gave trainer Charlie Whittingham his first stakes victory in California this year. . . . After working seven furlongs Sunday in 1:25 4/5, Stuka is expected to run Saturday in the $1-million Pacific Classic. Other probables for the race are entrymates Best Pal and Dramatic Gold, Bertrando, Slew Of Damascus, Del Mar Dennis, Tinners Way, Silver Music and Risen Roman. . . . With Kent Desormeaux at Saratoga to ride Lakeway in the Alabama, Chris McCarron will ride Best Pal. . . . Exchange, whose last victory on dirt was in the Chula Vista Handicap at Del Mar last September, is 8-5 on the morning line with entrymate Crownette for today’s Bayakoa Handicap. . . . Navarone, winner of the Escondido Handicap in 1992, is the 120-pound highweight for the stake on Wednesday. Navarone also won the Del Mar Handicap in ’92. . . . Trainer Ron McAnally is awash in fast 2-year-olds. He won the Hollywood Juvenile with the colt Mr Purple; a filly, Call Now, missed the track record for 5 1/2 furlongs by three-fifths of a second Saturday and on Sunday a Forty Niner colt, On Target, won in his first start.

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