04/05/2006 11:00PM

Derek the West's best shot

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There is a feeling abroad in the land that any horse who hasn't spent time vanning back and forth across the Delaware River need not bother showing up for the spring classics. The recent exploits of Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, and Funny Cide make the Mid-Atlantic look like the cradle of Triple Crown civilization, and who's to argue? Once is a fluke and twice can be called a geographic coincidence. But let it happen three times and you've got yourself a disturbing popular trend.

Still, just for the sake of argument, the Santa Anita Derby will be run for the 69th time on Saturday afternoon, and the winner will be anointed as the West's best hope for snagging the biggest slice of that Yum! Brands Kentucky Derby pie. That's Yum!, pal, and don't ever forget the exclamation point. Yum! Derby winners have been known to come out of the Santa Anita Derby, although last year's Giacomo surprise marked the first since Charismatic in 1999, and no Santa Anita winner has succeeded in Kentucky since Sunday Silence in 1989.

Brother Derek certainly deserves his own private punctuation mark after stringing together three straight stakes wins of a mile or more and basically outlasting many of his most promising classmates on the California scene. I like the looks of "Brother Derek$." or maybe "Brother Derek."

Even though Brother Derek has made early 2006 exciting, the winter season at Santa Anita could have been a lot more entertaining had champion Stevie Wonderboy (ankle) and Hollywood Futurity runner-up Your Tent or Mine (foot) been able to answer the bell for the Santa Anita Derby and its most significant preps.

Stevie and Derek were beginning to look like a latter-day version of Lucky Debonair and Jacinto, who tore at each other in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby of 1965, or Sham and Linda's Chief, the main players of early 1973, pitting the high-octane speed merchant against the relentless galloper. Lucky Debonair went on to win the 91st Kentucky Derby, while Sham cracked the two-minute Derby mark and beat every horse at Churchill Downs not named Secretariat.

None of the other five runners in this year's Santa Anita Derby has beaten Brother Derek, and only A. P. Warrior and Sacred Light have tried. In terms of sheer accomplishment Brother Derek stands out, much as Snow Chief appeared to have the Santa Anita Derby hogtied 20 years ago.

Like Brother Derek, Snow Chief was a cat-quick Cal-bred who could carry his speed a respectable route of ground.

"Snow Chief was small," recalled his trainer, Mel Stute. "But that sonofagun just wanted to win. He wanted to do everything right."

Alex Solis rode Snow Chief as a 2- and 3-year-old and now rides Brother Derek. His recollections mirror Stute's.

"Snow Chief had this little stride that kept going until he got the job done," Solis said. "He would do anything to beat you. Brother Derek has a more classic way of going. We don't know how good he is yet."

Both colts were conceived a few miles apart near the Santa Ynez Valley town of Buellton, in central California - Snow Chief at Jim Buell's Rancho Jonata and Brother Derek at Marty and Pam Wygod's River Edge Farm. After that, however, the Brother Derek tale took to the road.

He was foaled and weaned in southern Oregon, at the Gavel Ranch of breeder Mary Caldwell. From there Brother Derek went through the Keeneland sales ring as a yearling in September of 2004, going for $150,000, then received his earliest lessons as a racehorse from pinhookers John Brocklebank and Shane Chipman at a municipal equestrian center in South Jordan, Utah, not far from Salt Lake City.

Brother Derek's final stop before coming to rest in the stable of Dan Hendricks was the Barretts sales ring in Pomona, Calif., in March of 2005. Cecil Peacock, an Alberta oilman, bought him for $275,000 because he owned his stakes-winning brother Don't Sell Me Short.

"We thought he was worth a million," said Craig Tillotson, a network marketing executive from Provo, Utah, who was the third member of the pinhooking partnership. "But that's the way it goes sometimes. We're still very excited about everything he has accomplished."

He should be. Brother Derek is proudly carrying the name of Tillotson's 20-year-old son, Derek, who is nearing the end of a two-year tour as a Mormon missionary in Armenia.

"That really sent us to the atlas when he drew his assignment," said Tillotson. "There it was, tucked down there between Turkey and Georgia. It sure seems like a long way from home. But Derek has always shown he can handle a little hardship. When he was younger he broke his jaw when he was kicked by a riding horse. He went to summer camp anyway, and ate through a straw."

Tillotson communicates with his son via weekly e-mail and the occasional phone call, keeping him up to date on the exploits of his namesake.

"His mission doesn't end until September," Tillotson said, "so there's no way he can be back in time for the Kentucky Derby, if Brother Derek goes. But at least we've sent him a Brother Derek hat, although I'm not sure the Armenians know what it means."

Give it a few weeks and maybe they will.