First Saturday in May still is long way off

first_img Out front with the Derby talk was the entourage of Stevie Wonderboy, headed by owner Merv Griffin, who had crooned “My Old Kentucky Home” as soon as the colt won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in October in New York. And practically everyone on the premises was guilty of getting ahead of themselves, many of the nearly 9,000 fans on-site having been drawn to the track by the prospect of watching Stevie Wonderboy take his first strides toward Churchill Downs. ARCADIA – Whoa, slow down. That seemed to be the message at Santa Anita on Saturday, not so much for the horses as for the people. The damp air was full of Kentucky Derby talk, even though the First Saturday in May was more than 100 days away and anything like a pecking order among the nation’s best 3-year-olds is sheer illusion here at the very start of the prep season. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGift Box shows no rust in San Antonio Stakes win at Santa Anita If the wintry weather wasn’t somebody’s way of saying that January is too early to fit a horse for a rose garland, then the result of the San Rafael Stakes certainly was. Stevie Wonderboy finished second, a good effort that shouldn’t discourage his handlers but serves as a reminder that there’s competition out here. Brother Derek led from gate to wire, making an argument that he’s the best in California and jumping into the first flight of prospects for the May 6 Derby. “We’re going to have to map it out a little stronger now, more exactly,” trainer Dan Hendricks said of a Derby prep schedule that had been a little vague before now. If you believe that karma influences things as mundane as trifectas and pick-sixes, you have to believe Brother Derek won the San Rafael precisely because Hendricks and owner Cecil N. Peacock didn’t give in to the temptation to look ahead to Louisville. center_img Peacock, a Calgary oilman, was asked if he has started to think of, well, you know what. “I never talk about the Derby at all,” he said at the edge of the Santa Anita winner’s circle. “Some people start talking about the Derby when they win a 3-furlong race. Not me. The Derby is a long way away.” He’s right. Let’s talk about the Derby anyway. When the previous season’s 2-year-old champion makes his 3-year-old debut, it’s like the hostess lifting her fork at a dinner party, time to dig into the multi-course feast of speculation known as the Derby preps. Stevie Wonderboy reached for the cutlery Saturday. After closing 2005 with victories in the Del Mar Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he’s a lock to be given the 2-year-old championship at the Jan. 23 Eclipse Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills. The gloomy fact that no 2-year-old champion has won the Derby since the 26 years since Spectacular Bid, and no Juvenile winner has won the Derby in the 22 years the Breeders’ Cup has been around, didn’t hurt the anticipation a bit. Having plotted a three-race prep calendar, trainer Doug O’Neill went against the trend toward long winter breaks, making Stevie Wonderboy the rare top-ranked Derby type to run in January. When Brother Derek joined the field for the $150,000 San Rafael, it turned this into something even more unusual, a January battle between California’s two best 3-year-olds. “Winning 10 (thousand-dollar) claimers is great,” said O’Neill, enjoying his debut on the Derby Trail. “But there’s nothing like the buzz this creates.” Hendricks had talked about scratching Brother Derek if rain led to a hard track. The morning downpour stopped, though, and by race time it was sunny and the track was fast. Brother Derek and jockey Alex Solis, who had finished fourth in the Juvenile before winning the Hollywood Futurity over a Stevieless field in December, seized the early lead. Stevie Wonderboy and Garrett Gomez, who had perfected the come-from-behind charge, dropped back to last in the four-horse race. Brother Derek ($4.60) then did what the day demanded. He slowed down. Able to set a comfortable pace, the California-bred son of Benchmark felt Stevie Wonderboy coming on his outside at the top of the stretch but dug in and kept his 1-length margin all the way to the finish while covering the mile in a strong 1:36.11. It was 3 lengths back to Wanna Runner, and Woody Be Quick was a distant last. Disappointment for the Stevie Wonderboy camp? “Oh, big-time, yeah,” O’Neill said. But O’Neill thought his colt ran “dynamite,” considering his 77-day layoff and Brother Derek’s conditioning and tactical edges. “Anytime you give a horse like Brother Derek an easy lead like that, you’re in trouble,” O’Neill said. “I wouldn’t trade horses with (Hendricks), but I’d love to have that horse. As the fields get bigger and the paces get more realistic, I think we’ll do better.” O’Neill said he still plans to send Stevie Wonderboy into the March 4 Santa Catalina Stakes. Hendricks, speaking from the wheelchair to which he has been confined since a 2004 wheelchair accident, indicated his plans for Brother Derek are less defined. One-race-at-a-time is working out so far. “That horse (Stevie Wonderboy) might still be a better horse,” Hendricks said. “But I definitely had the advantage today.” Kevin Modesti’s column appears in the Daily News three days a week. 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