01/16/2006 1:00AM

After San Rafael, Derby plot thickens

Brother Derek (right) holds off Stevie Wonderboy to win Saturday's San Rafael Stakes.

NEW YORK - If you were a big fan of Stevie Wonderboy before Saturday's at Santa Anita, nothing that happened in that race should shake your faith in him, even if he did have to settle for second as the 3-5 favorite to Brother Derek.

If you had been skeptical of Stevie Wonderboy, specifically his prospects of winning the Kentucky Derby on May 6, then the San Rafael could validate your position.

Either way, the outcome of the San Rafael did serve to alter the big picture of the Kentucky Derby by bringing the top-ranked Derby aspirants into closer order. Get used to it. It is still only January.

For those who believe Stevie Wonderboy has the stuff to become the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to win the Derby, and the first champion 2-year-old to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid - he is a mortal lock to receive that honor at the Eclipse Award dinner on Monday night in Beverly Hills - there are ample reasons to take Stevie Wonderboy's defeat Saturday with a grain of salt. For one, the San Rafael was Stevie Wonderboy's first start in nearly three months. He had only four published breezing workouts since he won the Juvenile, and this being only January, he was certainly not going to be sharpened to a razor's edge for this go-around.

Moreover, Stevie Wonderboy had the task of rallying from last, albeit in a short field, against a quality colt in Brother Derek, who not only had the advantage of a more recent race, but also enjoyed a sweet trip in the San Rafael with a virtually uncontested early lead. But Stevie Wonderboy still tried very hard through the stretch, going down by only 1 1/2 lengths.

From the standpoint of Beyer Speed Figures, Stevie Wonderboy ran a race Saturday identical to the one he ran in the Breeders' Cup; he earned a 104 Beyer for both efforts. All things considered, this was a very good way for a colt to begin a 3-year-old campaign that so many expect to be successful. The only thing missing for Stevie Wonderboy was the win.

It's funny, but skeptics of Stevie Wonderboy had about as much to take out of the San Rafael as his supporters. For one, while Brother Derek may not have been pressed very hard on the front end, he wasn't exactly sleepwalking out there, either. Brother Derek went his first quarter-mile in 23.48 seconds, his second quarter in 23.32, and his third quarter in 23.60. That pace, especially through the second and third quarters, was certainly honest enough that a closer such as Stevie Wonderboy could have gotten up through a fourth and final quarter-mile in 25.71 if he were good enough.

The outcome of the San Rafael raises the question of whether some of Stevie Wonderboy's contemporaries have caught up to him. When he won the Juvenile, Stevie Wonderboy left Brother Derek 8 1/2 lengths behind in fourth. Matters of recency, trip, and intent aside, the San Rafael still represented a big turnaround in form. When you think about this, it's hard to not also think about Your Tent or Mine, who ran every bit as well as - if not better than - Brother Derek when second to him in the Hollywood Futurity. Comparative handicapping is a very tricky thing, but it could be that if there isn't very much right now between Stevie Wonderboy and Brother Derek, there also may not be much between Stevie Wonderboy and Your Tent or Mine, and perhaps several others as well.

Then, there is the two-turn issue. No one is suggesting Stevie Wonderboy won't successfully go two turns. But the fact is, the San Rafael was his first start around two turns, and he lost. This contrasts sharply to Brother Derek's record. The three biggest victories of his career - the Norfolk, the Hollywood Futurity, and now the San Rafael - all happened to be his only starts around two turns.

And finally, there is the matter of history. Stevie Wonderboy is attempting to buck 21 years of Breeders' Cup Juvenile futility in the Kentucky Derby. And when his people officially collect their Eclipse Award trophy next week, Stevie Wonderboy will also be going against 25 straight years of failure in the Derby by the reigning 2-year-old male champion. The word "jinx" is inappropriate, but the years are piling up, and these trends, until some horse actually snaps them, only grow in strength. It is no wonder why many racing people automatically take a stand against the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and/or champion 2-year-old male when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. So long as these streaks continue, it is a big edge to be able to eliminate the most prominent member of each generation.

In the meantime, it may still only be January, but the Derby picture is already getting interesting.