10/11/2006 11:00PM

Brilliant heads solid derby field

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CHICAGO - For one day in early September, at least, the 3-year-old colt Brilliant really was brilliant. Racing on soft turf in the Kent Breeders' Cup Handicap, a race that had unbeaten After Market as the favorite, Brilliant skipped over the ground, opening up a clear lead coming off the final turn and drawing still farther ahead through the stretch, winning the $500,000 race by more than six lengths.

The performance was a treat to the eye, and speed-figure makers liked it, too: Brilliant received a Beyer Speed Figure of 108, among the best on turf in the country this year.

Brilliant, though, is no one-hit wonder. He showed ability on dirt early this year, and but for some misfortune, might be unbeaten on turf, his lone loss a tough-trip fifth in the Hall of Fame Stakes on Aug. 7 at Saratoga. Efface that blemish, and Brilliant is 4 for 4 on grass, and he will be favored to take another in Saturday's Hawthorne Derby.

"If you look at his hip and his hind end, he looks to me like he could turn into a real nice 4-year-old," said Neil Howard, who trains Brilliant for Mill House, the nom de course of owner James Brady. "I think there is a chance he could be in with that upper group of grass horses."

Howard picks words of praise with care, and withholds judgment until proof has been made plain. But Brilliant's promising record is backed up by Howard's observations. "He's one of the nicest horses I've been around," he said. "His demeanor is second to none. He's easy to train, has a lovely, lovely attitude - he's an extremely nice horse.

"Not to compare the two of them, but we always used to say about Mineshaft, he was laid-back, but he knew when to get his game face on. He's a pro all around."

Seven others were entered in the Hawthorne Derby, a $250,000 Grade 3 carded at nine furlongs on grass, and the field is a solid one for this race. Go Between looks like the second choice, and if he can run back to his form before the Secretariat Stakes, he has a chance to upset Brilliant.

In from New York via Kentucky for trainer Bill Mott, Go Between has three victories this season, wins in a maiden race and a pair of stakes, one of which was the $1 million Virginia Derby. Go Between's win there made him one of the favorites for the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington, but Go Between flopped that day, fading from the five-eighths pole to the wire for a last-place finish.

"I'm still baffled by that," said Mott.

Freshened since that Aug. 12 start, Go Between has been working steadily at Belmont for this race, and has a potent kick at this best.

"He was a little slow coming at the beginning of his 3-year-old year, you know," Mott said. "He's improved over the course of the year."

Sea of Trees, who comes from the clouds, finished a distant third in the Kent BC, and also is an improving sort. Arbuckle Bandit won two straight at the end of the Arlington meet and still has upside, but takes a serious class hike Saturday. English import Crested has finished a close fourth in this two U.S. stakes tries, while locals Best of Buddies, Tally Up, and Creative Force all are at least decent.