12/27/2007 12:00AM

Backstretch flush with exciting 3-year-olds

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - Perhaps it is the move to synthetic surfaces, renewed interest from deep-pocketed owners, or a statistical quirk, but the depth and quality of prospects for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks who will be based at Santa Anita this winter is unusually strong.

There is more depth among the Derby contenders, headed by Into Mischief, Colonel John, and Massive Drama, the first three finishers from Saturday's CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park. They are supported by the comebacking Georgie Boy, winner of the Del Mar Futurity, and Maimonides, as well as such impressive recent maiden and allowance winners as Sea of Pleasure, Signature Move, Talk of a Cat, and Wind's Legacy.

And while the fillies are not as deep, they are headed by the country's top two, Indian Blessing, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, and Country Star, who won the Hollywood Starlet.

Santa Anita tweaked its stakes schedule for Derby prospects so the 3-year-olds will have a more logical progression to the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on April 5, and the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs.

The first significant race of the meet for Derby prospects will be the Grade 3, $150,000 San Rafael Stakes on Jan. 12, a one-mile race in which Maimonides is expected to return for trainer Bob Baffert. Maimonides ran twice last summer at Saratoga, where he crushed maidens in his debut before finishing third in the Hopeful Stakes.

Other possibilities for the San Rafael are Sea of Pleasure (trained by Gary Stute) and Wind's Legacy (Jennie Green), both of whom won first-level allowance races at Hollywood Park earlier this month, and the unbeaten El Gato Malo (Craig Dollase).

Into Mischief, Colonel John, and Massive Drama should turn up later in the meet, perhaps in the Grade 2, $200,000 Robert Lewis Stakes at 1o1/16 miles on Feb. 2. The Lewis will be the next start for Indian Sun, who was fifth in the CashCall Futurity, trainer Dan Hendricks said Sunday.

Other preps for the Santa Anita Derby are the Grade 3, $200,000 Sham Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on Marcho1, and the Grade 2, $200,000 San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 15.

Into Mischief improved both his performance and his temperament in the CashCall Futurity. He won his debut and then finished second to Massive Drama in the Hollywood Prevue last month.

"In his second start he got a little excitable and had a bit of the jitters going to the gate," said his trainer, Richard Mandella. "Hopefully he will get smarter as we go."

Mandella also trains Dixie Chatter, the winner of last fall's Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, but he is at a farm recuperating from a minor injury.

Colonel John "ran a fantastic race" in the CashCall Futurity, his trainer, Eoin Harty, said Sunday morning.

"He showed he could compete with the best," Harty said.

"With the exception of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, that was the toughest 2-year-old race of the year."

Several others could come to the fore over the next several months.

Georgie Boy, idle since the Del Mar Futurity, has been in steady training and will return in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash going six furlongs on Jan. 26, trainer Kathy Walsh said.

A first-level allowance race going 6o1/2 furlongs on Friday drew Gayego, who was a powerful debut winner for trainer Paulo Lobo on Nov. 18.

Another first-level allowance, this one at 1 1/16 miles scheduled for Jan.o3, should lure the well-regarded Signature Move, who comes off a maiden win for Eric Guillot. Also possible for that Jan. 3 allowance is Talk of a Cat, who is set to stretch out for trainer Todd Pletcher following a win against maidens going 6 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood on Dec. 1. He could, however, await the San Rafael nine days later.

Talk of a Cat could turn out to be Pletcher's best locally based Derby prospect.

Monba, who was a fast-finishing fourth in the CashCall Futurity, will train this winter at Palm Beach Downs in Florida, Pletcher said Sunday.

Indian Blessing, who is considered a cinch to be named champion 2-year-old filly, will make her first start as a 3-year-old in the Grade 2, $150,000 Santa Ynez Stakes going seven furlongs on Jan. 13.

"That's my birthday," said her trainer, Baffert, who worked Indian Blessing six furlongs in 1:11.80 on Sunday morning at Hollywood Park. "That'll be my birthday present. We let her down a bit after the Breeders' Cup, but she's getting cranked up. It doesn't take much to get her cranked up."

Also expected for the Santa Ynez is Ron McAnally-trained Izarra, the Oak Leaf Stakes runner-up.

Another early-season stakes for 3-year-old fillies is the Grade 3, $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on Jan. 5. Turf specialist Sea Chanter will try Cushion Track in that race, Pletcher said Sunday.

Pletcher is seeking an allowance race for Life at Ten, who beat maidens going long at Hollywood.

Country Star, trained by Bobby Frankel, is expected to make her next start in the Grade 1, $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes at one mile on Feb. 9. The Las Virgenes is the final major prep for the Grade 1, $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks on March 8.