01/04/2006 12:00AM

Derby dreams in northern California

Benoit & Associates
Cal Breeders' winner Sierra Sweetie is one northern California filly with a bright future.

SAN MATEO, Calif. - Northern California has a deep crop of 3-year-olds who should generate some interest along the Kentucky Derby trail this year.

Several of them already have made their presence felt in Southern California, and the two divisional leaders already have three stakes victories each.

The cancellation of last Monday's scheduled Bay Meadows Mile put a crimp in the plans of several trainers who had hoped to use that race as a prep for the Grade 3, $250,000 El Camino Real Derby on Jan. 29.

Cause to Believe, from leading trainer Jerry Hollendorfer's barn, ranks first in the class among colts. He has four wins and two seconds in six starts and has won three straight stakes races.

He was one of only three horses nominated to Monday's Bay Meadows Mile.

Hollendorfer said he was "very disappointed" by the cancellation.

"Now I'll have to shop for a spot, perhaps the San Miguel at Santa Anita - on Jan. 8 - or else just come into the race off works," he said.

Jockey Russell Baze has ridden many of the top local 3-year-olds, and although he declines to rate them, he is impressed with the way Cause to Believe has finished both in sprints and in his lone route victory.

"You can't say anything bad about a colt that's won three straight stakes," Baze said. "He's sure got a big kick."

Cause to Believe also is not bothered by dirt being kicked in his face, a good sign for a horse that makes one big late run.

Cause to Believe is not the only prospect in Hollendorfer's barn.

Sweet Roberto, who took awhile to put things together, is proven at a distance and has won on turf and dirt. Both Baze and Hollendorfer are pleased with the way he has developed since finally winning his maiden in his ninth start.

A third nice 3-year-old in Hollendorfer's barn is Passive Income, who was caught very wide on the first turn of a one-mile optional claiming race on Saturday and didn't fire late, as he usually does.

Objective, a James McIngvale homebred trained by Tom Roberts, defeated Sweet Roberto to win his maiden on the turf, and on Monday won the Hill Rise in the slop at Santa Anita. He defeated another northern California-based runner, Class of Fifty, who had previously run second in the Pinjara at the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita.

Barber, from the Art Sherman barn, was second to Cause to Believe in the six-furlong Mill Valley at Golden Gate Fields and appears to be a top prospect.

In Bold Chieftain, trainer Bill Morey Jr. possibly has his best prospect since the graded-stakes winner Dixie Dot Com. Bold Chieftain won a $40,000 optional claimer at a mile on Saturday despite ducking out and then nearly ducking into the rail heading into the lane. Baze, who rode him, chalked up the wild ride to inexperience and suggested it shouldn't be a major concern, especially with the way Bold Chieftain straightened out and finished the race.

"Number one, I was elated nothing happened," Morey said. "I liked the way he responded when they all came to him. The horse was very impressive."

Morey has two other nice 3-year-olds who have raced: Dons Champion, who is probably a sprinter, and Wilmore, who has yet to put things together but has a lot of talent.

Western Sovereign, a stakes winner for Ed Moger Jr., is being freshened.

Sitting in the wings is perhaps the best of the northern California 3-year-olds, the Greg Gilchrist-trained Frisco Star, who broke a 23-year-old track record with a 1:01.65 clocking for 5 1/2 furlongs while beating Class of Fifty and Objective at Santa Rosa in his lone start. A minor shin problem and a virus have slowed his return.

"He's a nice colt that has a lot of talent," said Baze, who was aboard for the victory.

Gilchrist said he might press Frisco Star to run later this month in the Sunshine Millions, but he probably will take a little extra time. He said he might nominate the colt, owned by Harry Aleo, to the Triple Crown, something he and Aleo didn't do with Lost in the Fog.

"If you've got the horse, the races will come," Gilchrist said. "He looks like he'll go a mile and farther."

Of the local 3-year-old fillies, the Jeff Bonde-trained Sierra Sweetie has three stakes victories. She graduated in the Generous Portion at Del Mar after running second in her debut in the Solano County Juvenile Fillies. She also has won the Carmel at Bay Meadows and the California Breeders' Championship at Santa Anita on Dec. 28 impressively.

"She's stayed consistent all year," said Bonde, who purchased Sierra Sweetie privately. "She's a big, tall, aerodynamic-type horse."

Bonde was impressed by her dam's sire, the French-bred Kendor. "She had Kendor's color and his long stride," he said.

For Sierra Sweetie's next start, Bonde is considering a Sunshine Millions sprint at Gulfstream in late January or the Grade 1 Las Virgenes at one mile at Santa Anita on Feb. 11.

The Bill Delia-trained Bai and Bai, runner-up to Sierra Sweetie in the Carmel, turned the tables in Cal Cup, then ran sixth in the California Breeders'.

Seam Seeker, trained by Moger, was second in the Piedmont and eighth in the California Breeders'.

Sherman has Piedmont winner Talverna, who will probably stick to sprinting, and Brahms Allegro, who should relish two turns but is sidelined after having a chip removed from her ankle.

Trainer Chuck Jenda has a prospect in Elusive Air, a troubled third behind the Morey-trained Hybird Diablo in an optional claiming sprint on Saturday. Elusive Air should get better at longer distances.

And sitting in the wings, just as he is with Frisco Star, is Gilchrist with Victorina, also owned by Aleo. She is 2 for 2 in her career and ran faster in her debut than Cause to Believe did later in the day in winning the Cavonnier.

Victorina, too, had a virus that swept through Golden Gate Fields in the late fall, but she might be far enough along now to ship to Gulfstream for the Sunshine Millions.

"She's coming along very quickly," said Baze, who rode Victorina in her most recent start. "Her works have been very good."

"She and Frisco Star should both be ready to run by the end of Bay Meadows," Gilchrist said. "She still has a shot at the Sunshine Millions."