03/26/2003 1:00AM

Cee Cruiser proves he's solid derby threat


PORTLAND, Ore. - "He ran a beautiful race," trainer Delmer Webb said Sunday morning, a day after his star 3-year-old, Cee Cruiser, won the Preview Stakes at Portland Meadows. "Barring bad luck, he'll be awfully hard to beat in the Oregon Derby."

Cee Cruiser, who races for breeder Troy Lange and Dan Miller, was coming off a three-quarter length upset of Oregon Futurity winner Glad to Be Here in the 1 1/16-mile McFadden Memorial on March 2, but he was left alone on an easy lead that day and did not fully convince the public he was the best horse. Cee Cruiser went off at better than 4-1 in the Preview, while Glad to be Here was the 3-1 second choice and Golden Gate invader First Laugh was bet down to 2-1.

Sunday, Cee Cruiser was denied the lead by First Laugh, who was in front by two lengths through a half-mile in 46.82 seconds. Retaining his composure under regular rider Twyla Beckner, Cee Cruiser stalked the pace to the mid-point of the second turn, moved through along the inside to take command leaving the quarter pole, and turned back a bid from Glad to Be Here at midstretch to win, inching clear by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:45.80, the fastest 1 1/16-mile clocking at the meeting.

"He showed another dimension," said Webb. "He was more manageable and more responsive than he has been in the past, and I take that as a sign that he is maturing. If he relaxes like that in the derby, I don't think he'll have any problem getting 1 1/8 miles."

The $25,000 Oregon Derby is April 13, and Webb said he feels fortunate to have three weeks for his horse to recover.

"He came out of the race pretty tired, so I don't think I'll do much with him for the next week or so," Webb said. "Fitness isn't going to be a problem with him, because he has had a hard campaign. I just want to rest him up and have him sharp for the derby, and I think I can do that in three weeks."

While Cee Cruiser now figures to be favored in the derby, Glad to Be Here was able to close from sixth to second despite battling a potent speed bias. Although First Laugh was aided by the bias, he also has room for improvement.

"He had only been on the grounds a week and a half, and he was off his feed for the first couple of days," said First Laugh's trainer, Jonathan Nance. "I had only tracked him twice before the race, so I think he'll benefit quite a bit from the effort. He could be a lot tougher in his second start over the surface."

Dash of Fame bounces back from rough trip

Dash of Fame emerged atop the local 3-year-old Quarter Horse division with an authoritative 1 1/4-length victory over Tricky Darling in last Saturday's $19,800 Portland Meadows Quarter Horse Derby at 400 yards.

Though he was just the sixth-fastest qualifier in the field of 10, Dash of Fame went off as the 8-5 favorite over top qualifier Zippy Chili Pepper, who was 2-1.

"He got hammered pretty good coming out of the gate in his trial heat, so we were probably lucky that he qualified at all," said Leroy Twiggs, trainer and part owner of Dash of Fame. "He came out of that race with a cut leg and a hurt knee, so it was touch and go to get him into the final."

The effects of those injuries may have played a role in the way Dash of Fame ran, as he lugged in badly after sprinting clear at the start. There were three claims of foul after the roughly run race, including one lodged against Dash of Fame, but the stewards allowed the results to stand.

"I think what saved us was that he broke so fast," said rider Joe Crispin. "He was clear right away, so he didn't really bother anyone."

Twiggs said Dash of Fame, who won 4 of 7 starts at this meeting, will get a lengthy rest before his next race, which is likely to be in the AQHA Challenge Derby at Boise in June.

Chinquapin Charlie prepping for Mile

Trainer Steve Fisher said Chinquapin Charlie, who won the last running of the Portland Meadows Mile in 2001, has been training well to defend his title. The Mile was not run last year because environmental concerns forced an early end to the meeting.

"He has put in two really good works, and he looks great," said Fisher. "I'd like to get a prep into him before the Mile, but he is willing and aggressive in the mornings, so it really isn't that hard to get him ready off works."

Chinquapin Charlie, who has earned $99,578 from 7 wins in 39 tries, joins Yesss, Prodigious, and Poker Brad as early contenders for this year's Mile, which will be run on closing day, April.