04/06/2005 11:00PM

Big talent but short price

Sweet Catomine, last year's Eclipse Award-winning juvenile filly, will take on the 2004 BC Juvenile winner, Wilko, on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - For pure spectacle, it is hard to beat Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 , with the filly Sweet Catomine starting as the favorite against 10 male rivals. Bettors might find it intriguing, too, but only if they are willing to take the position that Sweet Catomine is vulnerable, and certainly not worth the short price she will be.

A final Kentucky Derby prep always moves along these two tracks. There is the focus on the Derby four weeks hence. Who will improve? Who will regress? But there is also the here and now regarding the best horse today, and that is where bettors should be squarely focused.

Sweet Catomine is the most accomplished horse in the race. She has won 5 of 6 starts, is unbeaten in three starts at Santa Anita, and was an Eclipse Award winner last year. But does beating Memorette by three lengths in the Santa Anita Oaks translate into a victory against the likes of Don't Get Mad, Giacomo, and Wilko? Reasonable minds can differ.

At the least, Sweet Catomine did not scare anyone away. With the champion male Declan's Moon sidelined with an injury, and stakes winners Consolidator and Going Wild having left town, several trainers were emboldened to take a shot at the filly.

"I'm a little surprised there's as many, because, at least on paper, some of these horses wouldn't normally be in this type of race," said Marty Wygod, who owns Sweet Catomine with his wife, Pam. "It tells you they don't respect Sweet Catomine, or they wouldn't be in. With a large field and her running style, it makes it difficult. But I'd rather lose a lot of ground and have a clean trip then get stuck behind horses."

That will be the assignment for jockey Corey Nakatani, who will start from post 2 with Sweet Catomine in the 1 1/8-mile race. Sweet Catomine has proven she can extricate herself from tight spots and prevail, most notably in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

"She's athletic," Nakatani said. "She's a big, strong filly. It's a big, strong filly that historically beats the boys. She's the kind you can do it with. She's kind, she relaxes, and she doesn't pull. She just takes you through where you want to go. Nothing bothers her."

Nakatani, Wygod, and trainer Julio Canani all maintain that Sweet Catomine will improve off her two races from earlier this meet.

Because Sweet Catomine was trained lightly through the rainy weather earlier this year, "she was probably 80 percent going into her prep races," Nakatani said. "Now, she's 90 to 100 percent of where Julio wants her. She's improving."

Sweet Catomine's Beyer Speed Figures steadily improved through her 2-year-old campaign, topping out at a 102 in the Breeders' Cup. This year, she got an 88 in the Santa Ysabel, then a 96 in the Santa Anita Oaks. Handicappers will have to decide if Sweet Catomine is not as sharp as last year, or if her figures this spring will continue to ascend. It is also worth noting that none of her rivals has ever run faster than a 98.

"Going into the Breeders' Cup, her figures improved and she peaked out," Wygod said. "She improved in the Santa Anita Oaks from the Santa Ysabel. The question is if she continues that pattern for the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby."

The three main rivals for Sweet Catomine all have been training at Hollywood Park, and all exit the San Felipe Stakes, in which they finished second through fourth behind Consolidator.

The best known is Wilko, who won last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The meeting between Sweet Catomine and Wilko will be the first time winners of the two Breeders' Cup races for 2-year-olds have met at 3. Wilko was fourth in the San Felipe in his 2005 debut, and exited with a quarter crack to his right front foot to match the one he already had on his left front. Frankie Dettori, who rode Wilko in the Breeders' Cup, is reunited with the colt, but they will have to overcome the outside post 11.

"He's overcome a lot of things," trainer Craig Dollase said. "Now he'll have to overcome the post. I didn't think he ran so badly in the San Felipe considering the circumstances, and he's trained good since then."

The San Felipe was run over a sealed track. Both John Shirreffs, the trainer of Giacomo, and Ron Ellis, who trains Don't Get Mad, believe it compromised their colt's chances.

"I'm very happy with the way he's progressed," Shirreffs said of Giacomo, who was second in the San Felipe. "He hasn't gone backwards at all. The first few races, he was climbing because he didn't like the dirt in his face. He's matured a lot."

Don't Get Mad was third in the San Felipe in his first try around two turns.

"The track was hard as a rock," Ellis said. "The horse was smart enough to protect himself."

The Santa Anita Derby is the sixth race on an 11-race card that begins at noon Pacific time. The race will be televised live on an NBC broadcast from 5-6 p .m. Eastern. The forecast for Saturday is delightful - a high of 71 degrees and no rain.

The field

Santa Anita Derby
Purse: $750,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

1GiacomoM. Smith1224-1
2Sweet CatomineC. Nakatani1177-5
3Don't Get MadT. Baze1227-2
4AllrightT. Piermarini12230-1
5Go Coyote JoeM. Pedroza12220-1
6CustomerR. Douglas12230-1
7General John BJ. Court12220-1
8A.P. ArrowJ. Valdivia12230-1
10Buzzards BayM. Guidry12212-1
11WilkoL. Dettori1229-2

* Odds by Michael Hammersly
* Television: Saturday, 4- 6 p.m. (Eastern), NBC