09/04/2003 12:00AM

Del Mar Derby anyone's race

Benoit & Associates
Singletary, the winner of the La Jolla Handicap on Aug. 16, starts in the $300,000 Del Mar Derby on Saturday.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Perhaps the $300,000 Del Mar Derby on Saturday will establish a top 3-year-old turf male in California.

Throughout the year, there has been no dominant colt or gelding in that division. Devious Boy, Just Wonder, Private Chef, Singletary, Steelaninch, and Sweet Return have all won turf stakes since the first of April.

Three of them - Devious Boy, Singletary, and Sweet Return - return in the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby, as well as seven others, including Californian, the winner of the Forerunner Stakes at Keeneland in April; Fairly Ransom, a stakes winner in France who has run well this summer at Del Mar; and Senor Swinger, the winner of two Grade 3 stakes at Churchill Downs in the spring.

The race lacks a standout, and leaves bettors with plenty of options.

One thing is certain: Singletary, the winner of the La Jolla Handicap on Aug. 16, will be close to the front. Trained by Don Chatlos for the nine-member Little Red Feather Racing partnership, Singletary ended a three-race losing streak with a hard-fought half-length win over Devious Boy in the La Jolla, run over 1 1/16 miles.

The race may have been at the outside of Singletary's ideal distance, but Chatlos is willing to take a chance in the Del Mar Derby, which is run at 1 1/8 miles. Patrick Valenzuela, the leading rider at Del Mar, has the mount.

"I think the pace will be the key," Chatlos said. "If we get away with a 48-second half, whether he's in front or relaxed, I think he'll be okay. If it's 46, we could be in trouble."

Chatlos believes that Singletary's La Jolla win, and not his runner-up finish in a division of the Oceanside Stakes on July 23, is a more accurate indication of Singletary's form.

"He grabbed a quarter eight days before that race and I worked him before the race to make sure he was okay," Chatlos said in reference to the Oceanside. "I think he'll be more relaxed this time. It's his third race in seven weeks.

"It's up to Pat. He knows him now."

Singletary probably will not face much pressure in a field dominated by stalkers and closers. One longshot who races near the lead is Middleweight, who is making his stakes debut for owner B. Wayne Hughes and trainer Richard Mandella.

A quick pace would help a number of starters, including Fairly Ransom, who was second to Devious Boy in a division of the Oceanside Stakes and fourth in the La Jolla, and Senor Swinger, who was beaten a length in the La Jolla.

Devious Boy's win in the Oceanside was his first start since a third on the all-weather surface at Lingfield, England, in January. In the La Jolla, he closed from fifth to just miss catching Singletary.

"He got a little hampered and couldn't get out," trainer Kathy Walsh said. "He's really shown he's a legitimate horse."

The closers with excellent chances are Sweet Return, a winner of the Oceanside who was fifth in the La Jolla, and Californian, who made his last two starts at Arlington Park, finishing second in the Grade 2 American Derby and eighth in the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes.

Ron McAnally starts Fairly Ransom and Sweet Return, both of whom began their careers in Europe. Fairly Ransom is proven over the trip, having won the Prix de Courcelles over about 1 5/16 miles at Longchamp, France, in late March.

Sweet Return could be better suited to shorter distances, McAnally said. "There's no other place to go," he said. "All he has to do is relax."

Fairly Ransom disappointed McAnally in the La Jolla after a promising U.S. debut in the Oceanside. But the distance of the Del Mar Derby could help the stretch-runner.