06/17/2003 11:00PM

Derby also-rans back for more


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The second half of the 3-year-old season starts Sunday for Eye of the Tiger and Outta Here, who finished fifth and seventh in the Kentucky Derby last month.

Neither colt ran in the Preakness or Belmont Stakes, but they remain top contenders in Sunday's $100,000 Affirmed Handicap over 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park. While they were considered accomplished enough to start in the Kentucky Derby, both are seeking their first graded stakes win in the Grade 3 Affirmed.

Eye of the Tiger, owned by John Gunther and trainer by Jerry Hollendorfer, has yet to win a stakes. He was second in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 19 and was beaten 4 3/4 lengths by Funny Cide in the Kentucky Derby after racing within two lengths of the lead in midstretch.

"We didn't get the job done but he ran a credible race," Hollendorfer said of the Kentucky Derby. "We thought we'd been pretty hard on him and we didn't want to run in the Preakness. We thought he needed a break."

Outta Here won the $500,000 Delta Jackpot Stakes last December, his lone stakes win. In the Kentucky Derby, he was last on the backstretch and passed nine runners to finish seventh, beaten 6 1/2 lengths.

Outta Here was considered for the Belmont Stakes on June 7, but trainer and co-owner Bill Currin decided to stay in California. Currin's summertime goal for Outta Here is the $400,000 Swaps Stakes over 1 1/8 miles on July 13, which leaves him concerned about Sunday's shorter race.

"It's the wrong distance for me," Currin said. "I've either got to keep working the horse or give him the race. I'm not leaning in either direction. The race I'm looking for is the Swaps."

Eye of the Tiger and Outta Here share top weight of 119 pounds with Chief Planner, who won the Snow Chief Stakes for California-breds on April 26 and did not start in the Triple Crown races. Other probables include Blazonry, Bullistic, and Ministers Wild Cat.

Azeri to face five in Vanity

Azeri, who is seeking her 10th consecutive win in the Vanity Handicap on Saturday, galloped 1 3/8 miles on the main track on Wednesday.

The 2002 Horse of the Year, Azeri was shipped from trainer Laura de Seroux's base at San Luis Rey Downs on Tuesday. In the Grade 1 Vanity, run over 1 1/8 miles, Azeri is expected to have five opponents - American Czarina, Bare Necessities, Keys to the Heart, Sister Girl Blues, and Tropical Blossom.

G.F. Almeida will ride Sister Girl Blues, who was assigned 110 pounds, 17 fewer than Azeri. Almeida typically rides at 112 pounds.

Casas Caballo impressive

Casas Caballo won a six-furlong maiden race Saturday in 1:08.50, a time usually associated with graded stakes.

Graded stakes may be in the future for the 3-year-old Casas Caballo, who races for Michael House and trainer Mike Mitchell. From Saturday's race, Casas Caballo earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 110.

Making his second start last weekend, Casas Caballo led or disputed the pace throughout and pulled clear to win by three lengths over first-time starter Terrell, who was seven lengths clear of third.

The victory did not surprise Mitchell, who is hoping that Casas Caballo can start in the Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap at Del Mar on July 26.

"I wasn't blown away because I knew he had it in him," Mitchell said.

Mitchell craftily started Casas Caballo in a $50,000 claiming race for maidens on May 30 and watched him finish second. The colt even wore front wraps that day. "That was my idea," Mitchell said. "After that, I had a bunch of calls to sell him but I said he wasn't for sale."

Mitchell may have expected a big race from Casas Caballo but the style of the win left him impressed. After dueling for the lead on the backstretrch, Casas Caballo repelled a challenge from Terrell in early stretch. ""He's had his share of problems and he's put it all together now," Mitchell said.

Ideally, Casas Caballo will start in an allowance race in early July before being considered for the six-furlong Bing Crosby. "I'm sure if I'll run him back quick, he'll bounce," Mitchell said.

Johnston moves to Kentucky

Mark Johnston, the former leading rider in Maryland, has left Southern California after a stay of less than three months.

Johnston has traveled to Kentucky to be with his family and take care of personal problems, according to Michelle Barsotti, his California agent.

In March, Johnston moved to California in an attempt to establish a place in the circuit, which has lost three Hall of Fame jockeys - Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, and Laffit Pincay Jr. - to retirement in the last year.

According to Barsotti, Johnston last rode at Hollywood Park last Friday. At the current meeting he has won 10 races from 110 mounts. Through Wednesday, he was 11th in the standings.

Johnston is suspended from Wednesday through Friday for a riding infraction and did not ride last weekend.

"This is a tough place to crack and he was on the brink of cracking it," Barsotti said.

Kona Gold gears up yet again

Kona Gold, the champion sprinter of 2000 who has one victory in three starts this year as a 9-year-old, worked five furlongs in 58.60 seconds at Santa Anita on Wednesday. Third in the Grade 2 Portero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita on March 29 in his most recent outing, Kona Gold is a candidate for the $200,000 Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap on July 26.

Kona Gold's won the El Conejo Handicap at Santa Anita on Jan. 1, his 11th career stakes win.

* Sarava, the upset winner of the 2002 Belmont Stakes, worked three furlongs in 34.20 seconds at Santa Anita, the fastest of 32 works at the distance. Sarava joined trainer Bob Baffert's stable over the winter but has yet to start this year. He missed an allowance race at Churchill Downs last month after suffering a foot injury.

* Jockey Isaias Enriquez dropped an appeal of a three-day suspension from Santa Anita in April. Enriquez, who has won 5 races from 87 mounts at this meeting, will not ride from Friday through Sunday.

- additional reporting by Brad Free