04/03/2004 12:00AM

Castledale takes Derby in 30-1 upset

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Jockey Jose Valdivia sports a big grin after guiding 30-1 Castledale to an upset win by a head over Rock Hard Ten in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on Saturday. Rock Hard Ten was disqualified to third following a stewards' inquiry.

ARCADIA, Calif. - In a spring in which it has become the norm to expect the unexpected, Saturday's $750,000 played true to form, such as it is. The unheralded Castledale, a turf specialist who had finished sixth in his only previous race on dirt, scored a 30-1 upset in the West Coast's Grade 1 prep for the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

Castledale, the second-longest shot on the board, outran six rivals, then survived both a stewards' inquiry and a rider's claim of foul.

Castledale, racing on the outside through the stretch, outdueled Rock Hard Ten through a thrilling final furlong, and crossed the wire the victor by a head. Imperialism finished another two lengths back in third, but he was forced to check sharply along the rail with about 70 yards remaining in the race.

Santa Anita's three stewards - Ingrid Fermin, Pete Pedersen, and Tom Ward - viewed videotape replays for approximately 10 minutes before rightly ruling Rock Hard Ten had instigated the interference, with Castledale merely following Rock Hard Ten as Rock Hard Ten drifted inward.

As has happened so often in 3-year-old stakes races this year, there were disappointments among the highly regarded runners. Wimbledon, the Louisiana Derby winner, faded to finish fifth after making a menacing move on the turn. And St Averil, who was sent off the 2-1 favorite, finished sixth in a dreadfully dull effort.

As the stewards deliberated, Jose Valdivia Jr., Castledale's jockey, anxiously watched a replay of stretch run that was shown repeatedly on the track's infield video monitor. He maintained that Rock Hard Ten, who towers over the smaller Castledale, was the aggressor.

"I just followed him," Valdivia said. "When he starts coming down, I'm not even close to him. Look at him, he's three times the size that I am."

After the disqualification, David Flores, who rode Rock Hard Ten, said, "Well, with the stewards, you don't know what they're going to do."

Castledale ($62) covered 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:49.24. He gave trainer Jeff Mullins his second straight Santa Anita Derby; he won it last year with Buddy Gil. Castledale is owned by Greg Knee and Frank Lyons, the former trainer who is now an analyst for TVG.

"I can't take it in yet," Lyons said. "To go to the Kentucky Derby, the greatest race in the world, with a chance, it's unbelievable."

Castledale had won just twice in nine previous starts. He made his first seven starts in Ireland, where Lyons spotted him during a vacation last summer and negotiated a private purchase. In his first start in this country, Castledale captured the Generous Stakes at Hollywood Park last November.

Castledale did not race again until March 6, when he finished sixth of 10 in the San Rafael Stakes. That was his first start on dirt. Despite that performance, Mullins thought Castledale deserved a second chance on the dirt.

"After that race we worked him once on the turf, but the consensus was that he worked better on the dirt," Mullins said. "His action just changes. He's a totally different horse. That's why we took a shot in this race."

A large crowd of 36,155 - lured by the Santa Anita Derby, a T-shirt giveaway, and a post-race Ziggy Marley concert - gave the track an old-fashioned buzz. When the horses arrived in the paddock to be saddled, Quintons Gold Rush was overanxious. Rock Hard Ten got a bit jumpy in the walking ring. But Castledale displayed his maturity, never getting rattled by the commotion.

Castledale raced in fifth during the early going as Lucky Pulpit and Quintons Gold Rush set fractions of 22.87 seconds and 46.84 seconds for the first half-mile. As the field neared the top of the stretch, Valvidia came off the inside and tipped Castledale to the five path. Imperialism, meanwhile, got through the spot Castledale had vacated, but his path became blocked in the closing yards.

"Unfortunately the other horse came into me and I just got stuck," said Victor Espinoza, who rode Imperialism.

Rock Hard Ten, making only his third start, got the lead just inside the furlong pole, but Castledale wore him down in the final yards.

Now, it's on to the Kentucky Derby.

"I think he's earned his way," Mullins said.