03/11/2006 1:00AM

Derby may be the best yet


OLDSMAR, Fla. - When Peter Berube took over as general manager at Tampa Bay Downs several years ago, one of his goals was to change the Tampa Bay Derby from a race that was viewed by many horsemen as an afterthought and elevate it to a pivotal Kentucky Derby prep race.

Mission accomplished.

This looks like the year the Tampa Bay Derby comes of age. If the bulk of those pointing to the Grade 3, $250,000 race enter the gate on Saturday, it will be the strongest and deepest renewal in the race's

history, with Bluegrass Cat the highest-rated Kentucky Derby hopeful ever to run in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Bluegrass Cat showed he is more than a one-dimensional speed horse by rallying from off the pace to take the Sam Davis Stakes here

following an 11-week break. He figures to be even fitter for the 1 1/16-mile derby, and another strong showing at Tampa Bay would solidify his status as one of the top threats for the Kentucky Derby.

Little Cliff, who is scheduled to work at Gulfstream on Monday morning, looked like he had a chance to win the Sam Davis turning for home, but he came up short and finished fourth. Trained by Nick Zito, he is under consideration for Saturday's race.

Steve Asmussen would like nothing better than to be a player in the Triple Crown races this year after ranking among the leading trainers in the nation the past several seasons. He is expected to run Storm Treasure, who finished second to Kentucky Derby hopeful Strong Contender in his 2006 debut.

Another potential starter is Deputy Glitters, who finished second, just 1 1/4 lengths behind Bluegrass Cat, in the Davis.

Tampa's stakes coordinator, Duby Christo, is looking for 8 to 10 horses in the derby. Other probables include Harborage, Reaffirmed, Unbridled Behavior, Welfare Cadillac, and Winnies Tigger Too.

The other two stakes on Saturday's Festival Day card are the $200,000 Florida Oaks and the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes.

The Oaks looks like it will be topped by Crystal Current, who was a dazzling winner of the Suncoast Stakes here off a 10-week break.

Stolen Prayer, who set the pace through a six-furlong clocking of 1:09.50 before fading to fourth behind a 14-length romp by Wait a While in the Grade 2 Davona Dale at Gulfstream, will look to rebound in the Oaks. Stolen Prayer worked five furlongs Saturday morning in 1:03.20, and her trainer, Eddie Plesa Jr., thinks his filly is poised for a good effort in the Oaks.

"The track was sloppy for that last one, and I'm not sure she liked that," Plesa said of the Davona Dale, "but she was still beaten two necks for second after setting those kinds of fractions. On paper it would look like she's just a speed-crazy filly, but that's not the case, and I wouldn't be shocked if she wasn't on the lead from the start Saturday.

"She ran a bang-up race on the turf in the Tropical Oaks, and she may well end up being better on the turf, I don't know," Plesa added. "But we think she fits well in the [Florida] Oaks and think she'll give a good account of herself."

Others thought to be pointing for the Oaks include Saratoga Drive, 2 for 3 lifetime;

undefeated Summer Cruise; Summit Queen; A.J. Coal Bed; Bushfire; Love Boot; Sweet Sugaree; and Taylor Madison.

The Hillsborough could be a rematch between My Lordship and Laurafina, who finished one-two in the Endeavour. The Bobby Frankel trainee Amorama, who finished third in the Endeavour in her first start since October, could well be the horse to beat in what figures to be an overflow field.