10/01/2003 11:00PM

Derby no big stretch for Sweet Return

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The prospects for Sweet Return's career changed after the Del Mar Derby on Sept. 6.

A colt once thought of as a miler, Sweet Return made an impressive rally to finish a game third over 1 1/8 miles.

The showing has given owner John Brunetti and trainer Ron McAnally high expectations for Sweet Return's reappearance in the $150,000 Oak Tree Derby at Santa Anita.

"The way he ran in the Del Mar Derby, I think he'll be very good," McAnally said. "It gave me a lot of confidence."

Sweet Return was beaten 1 1/4 lengths by stablemate Fairly Ransom in the Del Mar Derby. Fairly Ransom is passing Saturday's race in favor of the $600,000 Hollywood Derby on Nov. 30.

Without Fairly Ransom, the 1 1/8-mile Oak Tree Derby lacks the division leader but does include Californian, Devious Boy, and Domestic Dispute in a field of six.

Devious Boy may go favored. Trained by Kathy Walsh, the gelding has not been worse than third in his three starts in this country.

Devious Boy won a division of the Oceanside Stakes at Del Mar on July 23, finished second to Singletary in the Grade 3 La Jolla Handicap there in August, and was second in the Del Mar Derby, finishing a nose in front of Sweet Return.

Domestic Dispute is making his turf debut and first start in California for owners David Bienstock and Chuck Winner, who acquired him a week before he finished 10th in the Kentucky Derby.

Domestic Dispute was later ninth in the Pennsylvania Derby, run over a sloppy track at Philadelphia Park.

Trainer Paddy Gallagher quickly dismissed that result after talking with jockey Corey Nakatani. "Corey said he was slipping all over the track," Gallagher said.

Californian, who is trained by Kristin Mulhall, has shown erratic form this year while racing exclusively on turf. Californian won the Forerunner Stakes at Keeneland in April and was a game second in the Grade 2 American Derby at Arlington Park in July, but was eighth in both the American Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs in May and Secretariat Stakes at Arlington on Aug. 16.

Sweet Return has started seven times since arriving from England last fall. He won a division of the Oceanside, but finished fifth in the La Jolla Handicap there on Aug. 16. McAnally says that jockey Russell Baze took the blame for the La Jolla loss.

"When Baze rode him, he said, 'I'd have ridden him better if I'd have known him,' " McAnally said. "If you get him in gear, he's gone."