04/06/2004 11:00PM

Borrego has faced some class acts

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Horses are sometimes best judged by the company they keep, and by that measuring stick Borrego deserves much respect in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.

No other horse in the field has faced as many promising 3-year-olds this season as Borrego. In his two dirt stakes starts, he has run second to Master David and Wimbledon, and finished in front of such horses as champion Action This Day, Grade 2 winner Preachinatthebar, and Pollard's Vision, who last Saturday won the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby.

"As of now, it looks like we've run against good competition," said Beau Greely, the co-owner, co-breeder, and trainer of Borrego.

Borrego is looking for his first stakes victory Saturday. He has been settled in at Oaklawn for over a week, preparing to take on 10 others in the Arkansas Derby. The 1 1/8-mile race closes out the meet, and is part of the 31st annual Racing Festival of the South.

Borrego flew into town from Southern California, and his journey to the Arkansas Derby has been a particularly winding one. Bred in Kentucky by Greely and partners, he was bought back twice at auction, his long, scopy build unappealing to those looking for a speed-type horse who might offer a quick return on investment.

That was fine with Greely, who took his time developing Borrego. The colt did not make his career debut until last October, when he started at a mile on turf at Santa Anita.

"We originally started him on turf for the first time, and that's because he was by El Prado," said Greely.

Borrego finished fourth in that race, then won his maiden in his second start, also at a mile on turf.

Greely stepped Borrego up into stakes company following his maiden win, and he finished eighth to the eventual Santa Anita Derby winner, Castledale, in the Grade 3 Generous at Hollywood Park.

"He broke out of the 14 hole and just had a horrible trip," said Greely. "After that race, we thought if we were going to see if we had a dirt horse, now's the time to try."

Borrego gave his connections immediate results. He rallied from sixth to win a optional claiming race by 1 1/2 lengths in his dirt debut at Hollywood Park on Dec. 27.

"At that point we had some offers for the horse and turned them down," said Greely. "We decided to put him in the Sham."

Borrego finished second in that race to Master David, who is one of the favorites for Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial. From there, Borrego finished second to Wimbledon in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby March 7, his last start.

"He ran a very good second with what I guess you could say was kind of a troubled trip," said Greely. "At the quarter pole he had to go about eight wide or so, but he ran very respectable. So his two stakes races on dirt have been pretty respectable."

Just as Borrego has kept good company during his career, so has Greely, 32. From a long line of horsemen, Greely's family members have trained horses for such owners as C.V. Whitney, Greentree Stable and King Ranch.

Greely has continued that trend. His co-owners in Borrego are Jon and Sarah Kelly, who have been partners in such horses as Brahms; Rawleigh Ralls and Dennis Foster, who have ties to Arkansas; and Brad Scott, who owns restaurants in Lexington, Ky.

Kelly plans to bring seven friends to the race from California.

"This is pretty special for us, and it's a homebred, which makes it super-exciting," he said.

Borrego could give Greely his first starter in the Kentucky Derby. Since taking out his training license in 1997, he has won major stakes with Manndar, Five Star Day, and Sligo Bay. His one Triple Crown starter has been Like a Hero in the Belmont Stakes.

"Obviously, we're going to take it one race at a time and get through this one, but the big plan is the first Saturday in May," said Greely.