01/06/2004 1:00AM

Derby puts focus on 3-year-olds


ALBANY, Calif. - With the first derby of the year only two days away at Golden Gate Fields, now is a great time to have an improving 3-year-old.

Trainer Lonnie Arterburn has two: Lava Man, who will run in Thursday's co-feature, a one-mile, $40,000 starter allowance race on the turf, and Kilgowan, who is nominated for Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Golden Gate Derby but who is more likely to run in an allowance race Friday, if it fills.

Trainers Bill McLean and Chuck Peery find themselves in similar positions. McLean has entered Dancin Candy on Thursday. Peery nominated Tacky to the derby, but, like Arterburn, would prefer to run his recent maiden winner on Friday.

Five have entered Thursday's race, but Lava Man and Dancin Candy appear the primary contenders.

Lava Man, who began his career in a bottom-level maiden claimer at Stockton, has turned around since stretching out and trying turf with a second and a win in two starts.

The early races for a tag qualified him for the starter race, and Arterburn wants to take advantage of that for Lava Man's first start against winners.

"His recent improvement may be a little bit of both grass and added distance," said Arterburn, who is also Lava Man's co-owner and breeder.

Lava Man, a gelded son of Slew City Slew, is the only member of the field with turf experience and will be part of the pace picture, as will Dancin Candy.

McLean claimed Dancin Candy for $32,000 from his maiden victory and saw him run a bang-up race against similar in the slop on Dec. 4. Dancin Candy was under constant pressure. Although he was passed late, he held well for second, while his pace rival faded badly in the stretch.

As for running Thursday, McLean said, "He's not seasoned enough to think about running against derby types yet.

"I'm not concerned that he's running on the turf here," he said. "He should handle it, and I always figured down the road we'd like to try him on the turf."

The big concern is that the top two will battle too hard on the lead, but Dancin Candy seems to have more speed, while Lava Man has run comfortably from off the pace.

Arterburn likes Kilgowan's improvement. He was third in his debut and won his second start when stretched out to a mile. "He's a nice prospect," Arterburn said. "We're not in a big hurry with him. If the allowance race doesn't go Friday, it would depend upon the track condition if we were to enter in the derby."

Peery also saw Tacky win his second start, going 1 1/16 miles in the mud after sprinting in his debut.

"I was surprised when he won because he came from so far out of it, but this colt doesn't get tired," Peery said. "It's not out of the realm of possibility that he'd run in the derby depending upon how many go, but I'd like him to run in that first allowance condition."