07/18/2003 12:00AM

American has distinct European flavor

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It's called the American Derby, but the most likely winner is from the United Kingdom. Californian, bred in England, and Evolving Tactics, bred in Ireland, are the two favorites in a field of seven 3-year-olds entered in the $250,000 American Derby, a Grade 2 race to be run Sunday at Arlington Park.

Californian was regarded as a failure when relegated to dirt in his native country before being sent to Kristin Mulhall in Southern California last winter. In his U.S. debut, Californian posted a 13-1 upset in the Forerunner Stakes on the Keeneland turf in April. But in his lone subsequent start he finished eighth two weeks later in the May 2 Crown Royal American Turf at Churchill Downs.

Having regrouped at Santa Anita under Mulhall - whose father, Richard, manages The Thoroughbred Corp., the colt's breeder - Californian will be attempting to duplicate the kind of effort he gave in winning the Forerunner. Kent Desormeaux will be in to guide Californian from post 5 in the American Derby, which is contested at 1 3/16 miles on turf.

Evolving Tactics, bred and owned by Moyglare Stud and trained by Dermot Weld, was under serious consideration for the Kentucky Derby after winning an April maiden race at Cork in Ireland, but his connections decided against running him in that race. Since then, Evolving Tactics has finished ninth in the Grade 1 Irish Guineas in May and third in a listed stakes at the prestigious Ascot meet last month.

Patrick Smullen will be in to ride Evolving Tactics, who will get Lasix for the first time Sunday.

Maybe the most dangerous challenger to the two favorites are a pair of colts who spent the spring and summer at Lone Star Park: Gato Gato Gato, who figures to be on the lead for a long period, and G.W.'s Skippie, a two-time winner on grass.

The others are Bim's Baby Bun, Rapid Proof, and Scottago.

The American Derby is the middle leg of the Mid-America Triple, which began with the June 28 Arlington Classic, won by Lismore Knight, and ends with the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes on Aug. 16.

The American Derby is the eighth of 10 races on an outstanding card that also includes three allowances (races 3, 6, and 7) and a $45,000 overnight handicap (race 10). First post is 1 p.m. Central.