08/28/2006 11:00PM

'Derek' back and not forgotten

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Brother Derek takes a sideways glance at his trainer, Dan Hendricks, at Del Mar. The colt returns in Saturday's El Cajon.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Gone are the camera crews, the thicket of print reporters, all of which shadowed trainer Dan Hendricks from the Santa Anita Derby through the Kentucky Derby and then on to the Preakness Stakes. When Hendricks heads out of his barn office, however, the one constant in his life from then until now sticks his bay head out of the stall and looks around inquisitively. You could almost believe Brother Derek is saying, "I'm ready, already."

Brother Derek brought Hendricks overdue attention, both for his skill as a trainer and for his perseverance since suffering a tragic accident in July 2004 that left him a paraplegic. Now, after more than three months out of the spotlight, the two are about to return to a racing landscape that has changed markedly since they were last seen, but which offers great promise for them.

The exploits of Barbaro, Bernardini, Discreet Cat, Henny Hughes, and Showing Up have provided ample evidence that this crop of 3-year-olds is truly special. Brother Derek was at or near the top of that list earlier this year. With plenty of time to recover from the rigors of the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and with a series of strong works at Del Mar in the past month, Brother Derek appears set to launch his comeback on Saturday in the $100,000 El Cajon Stakes.

"We had a lot of fun with the Derby, the whole thing," Hendricks said at his barn. "It was fun to be part of the Kentucky Derby, which is the biggest race in the world.

"Cecil and I," Hendricks said, referring to owner Cecil Peacock, "tried to take it in and enjoy it, and not get caught up in the win-at-all-costs mentality, because that's devastating if you get beat. Now, it's on to Phase 2."

Phase 1 was a well-spaced campaign designed to get Brother Derek to the Derby as fresh and fit as possible. He won the Santa Anita Derby, then finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby after breaking from post 18 in the 20-horse field and racing extremely wide the whole way.

"I think that was the best race he's ever run," Hendricks said. "He had a compromised trip. He could easily have been second with a little luck. But that's what makes the Derby special. That's what makes Barbaro special. He made his own luck, ran fast, and won easily."

Brother Derek then went on to the Preakness, but skipped the Belmont after finishing fourth at Pimlico in a race in which Bernardini's performance was overshadowed by Barbaro's career-ending injuries.

"The Derby's a very taxing race. It's hard to pass up a race like the Preakness with a legitimate top contender for the race," Hendricks said.

Phase 2, beginning with the El Cajon, involves another potential trip to Churchill Downs, this time for the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4. After the El Cajon, Hendricks said he would like to send Brother Derek against older horses in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting on Oct. 7.

"The plan after the Preakness was to give him a break, and have it be a big enough break that he could get something out of it and be fresh when he came back in the fall," Hendricks said. "I wanted him to have three races going into the Breeders' Cup, but he had a slight temperature when we first started back. That backed us up two weeks, but I didn't want to rush him after giving him the time. So, now he's ready the first week of September instead of the middle of August.

"The ideal plan is to run in the El Cajon, the Goodwood, and the Breeders' Cup," said Hendricks. "If he can win those three, he'd be right in contention for 3-year-old of the year. Right now, it's Barbaro. A 3-year-old is going to have to win the Breeders' Cup to take it from Barbaro."

And as far as Hendricks is concerned, "I think the 3-year-olds will have a very strong say in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and hopefully I'll be one of them.

"He's been one of the top five since last October, when he won the Norfolk," Hendricks said of Brother Derek. "This is a very, very good group of horses. You start last year with Stevie Wonderboy, Henny Hughes, First Samurai, then this year with Barbaro, Lawyer Ron, Bernardini, Bluegrass Cat. It's a super group of 3-year-olds, and they're not done. I'm coming back, Bernardini, Jazil, Discreet Cat."

Hendricks said that in the past few months, Brother Derek has "matured mentally more than physically."

"He's training very similar, but he's not as aggressive and headstrong, which I think is a positive," Hendricks said. "He just breezes right along. His movement is so fluid. It's a lot of fun to watch him train. The way he's working, I think he's ready."