12/23/2004 12:00AM

California dreamin' Kentucky Derby

Hollywood Futurity winner Declan's Moon (right) tops a talented class of soon-to-be 3-year-olds training in California. Also high on any list is Roman Ruler.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Beginning with Silver Charm in 1997, through Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, the Kentucky Derby winner emerged from California for four straight years. A four-year drought has since ensued, but this winter, the most promising collection of Derby prospects in years is congregated in Southern California.

The roster is led by Declan's Moon, the undefeated winner of the Hollywood Futurity and the probable 2-year-old champion. But this is far from a one-horse town.

Wilko, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, is now based in California. So too is Consolidator, the winner of the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity, and Texcess, the winner of the Delta Jackpot. Roman Ruler, last summer's sensation at Del Mar, is gearing up for a return. Sweet Catomine, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner and likely 2-year-old filly champion, might take on colts next spring.

Toss in such well-regarded, lightly raced runners as Don't Get Mad, Kirkendahl, Hollywood Futurity runner-up Giacomo, and the headline-grabbing Fusaichi Samurai, and Santa Anita's stakes schedule for newly turned 3-year-olds should be the most-watched program of the winter.

Santa Anita has tweaked its stakes schedule this year to provide a more sensible progression toward the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 9. The one-mile San Rafael Stakes, scheduled for Jan. 15, now precedes the 1 1/16-mile Santa Catalina Stakes, which has been moved to March 5. In early February, there are options for horses who are far along in their training (the 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes on Feb. 5), or need a little more time to develop (the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 13). The final prep for the Santa Anita Derby is the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes on March 19.

Ron Ellis, the trainer of Declan's Moon, said he was not sure if his horse would have two or three races at Santa Anita this winter prior to the Kentucky Derby. Regardless, he will not race in January. Unless Ellis wants to back up Declan's Moon to a sprint in the San Vicente, his most likely first option would be the Sham.

"I'm just going to go with whatever seems the natural thing to do," Ellis said. "Santa Anita's got a good program. I'm leaning right now that he should have three races before the Derby. It's a very strenuous race. They need experience. But we'll see how it goes.

"I truly believe he could be one of the ones. He's got the mind, the ability. The last thing I expected when I first started out with him was that he'd be this good this early. I expected him to be a late developer, and I just wanted to get some experience into him as a 2-year-old. But he's really stepped up to the plate and showed that he's ready for the big leagues. He's much stronger now than at Del Mar. I think he's got a lot left in him."

Ellis said Declan's Moon would train this winter at Hollywood Park, where Declan's Moon has been based since last summer.

"With Hollywood Park not having to worry about closing the track in the morning because of racing in the afternoon, there should be less off days this winter," Ellis said. "I think we'll call this home for awhile."

Ellis also now trains Don't Get Mad, a cleverly named son of Stephen Got Even who was a winner in Kentucky for trainer Paul McGee before owner B. Wayne Hughes sent him west. He might run in the San Rafael, Ellis said.

"He got a little sick on me for three or four days a couple of weeks ago, but it shouldn't take too much to get him back," Ellis said.

Trainer Paul Aguirre had considered the San Rafael as the next stop for Texcess, but now might be inclined to await something later. "It might be a little quick back," he said.

The speedy Kirkendahl, who is unbeaten after two sprints, will stretch out around two turns for the first time in the San Rafael, according to Ted West, who trains Kirkendahl with his son, Ted H. West.

"He worked seven-eighths real well the other day," West said. "He finished real well, so we're going to go in the San Rafael. His pedigree indicates he'll run on."

Kirkendahl is by Menifee, who finished second to Charismatic in the 1999 Kentucky Derby. "He looks the part. He's got a great disposition," West said.

Others under consideration for the San Rafael are Chips Are Down and Spanish Chestnut, who ran one-two in an allowance race at Hollywood Park's fall meeting. Chips Are Down is trained by Bob Baffert, who also has Roman Ruler on the comeback trail, and a promising, unstarted Seattle Slew colt named Christian Eagle.

Patrick Biancone, the trainer of Spanish Chestnut, also has Scipion, who disappointed after a breathtaking debut win at Saratoga. "He may come back in the Sham," Biancone said.

Wilko suffered a quarter crack to his left front hoof on the eve of the Hollywood Futurity, and now will get some time to recover from that before racing. He was due for a rest, anyway, having raced 12 times this year.

"He was still a little tender in that area [the day after the Hollywood Futurity]," his trainer, Craig Dollase, said earlier this week. "Not pounding on it each day, it should come around fast. We'll leave the patch on and let the crack grow out. We'll look to challenge Declan's Moon again down the road.

"We know our horse can run. He showed up on the big day," Dollase said, referring to the Breeders' Cup, "and got it done."

Giacomo, a gangly son of Holy Bull, has the look of a colt who should improve with experience and distance. His trainer, John Shirreffs, was thrilled with his performance in the Hollywood Futurity.

"We're just looking to advance, improve with each race," Shirreffs said.

Fusaichi Samurai, a $4.5 million purchase earlier this year, served notice that he is one to watch with a stylish debut win against maidens two weeks ago at Hollywood Park. His sire, Fusaichi Pegasus, won the San Felipe en route to his Kentucky Derby victory. Like Fusaichi Pegasus, Fusaichi Samurai is trained by Neil Drysdale.

The time of Sweet Catomine's victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies was faster than that of Wilko in the Juvenile, and her owner, Marty Wygod, has intimated he's not averse to running Sweet Catomine against colts should she continue to progress.

Her trainer, Julio Canani, said Sweet Catomine will make her first start of 2005 on Jan. 9 in the Santa Ysabel Stakes, which is restricted to fillies. The Santa Anita Oaks is March 13, 27 days before the Santa Anita Derby.