03/28/2009 11:00PM

Dirt test for 12 in Sunland Derby

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Although the $800,000 Sunland Park Derby on Sunday did not draw a leading candidate for this year's Kentucky Derby, it has lured a field of 12 promising 3-year-olds. And because the Sunland Derby is run on dirt and at 1 1/8 miles, it should answer key questions that will determine future starts for a number of its entrants.

Track officials are making a push to have the race graded, and have raised the purse from $600,000 and introduced a two-tiered bonus this year. The changes have helped lure Mine That Bird, the champion 2-year-old last year in Canada; Mayor Marv, who won the $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby; and Kelly Leak, third to This Ones for Phil in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash in January at Gulfstream Park.

"It's the largest and deepest field we've ever had," said Norm Amundson, racing secretary at Sunland.

The Sunland Derby is one of five stakes worth a cumulative $1.4 million on the richest card of the meet, and it has a strong Southern California feel with seven of its starters in from the West Coast. Of them, Mark S the Cooler, Advice, Santamonicacanyon, and Mythical Power will be making their dirt debuts. And, with the exception of Mark S the Cooler, every horse in the field will be making his first start at a distance that separates true stayers from milers.

Trainer Mike Machowsky feels good about the distance question for Kelly Leak, who should vie for favoritism with Mayor Marv. Kelly Leak comes into the Sunland Derby off a sharp, off-the-pace win in a first-level allowance on turf at Santa Anita.

"He got covered up, was able to get out just before the eighth pole, and exploded," said Machowsky. "He made up all the ground and then some."

Kelly Leak won by 1 1/4 lengths, and his connections later decided to make him a $10,000 supplement to the Sunland Derby. He has trained well for his return to dirt, and Machowsky is comfortable with the surface switch for the versatile horse, who won his career debut on a synthetic surface at Hollywood Park.

"That Hollywood Park track is pretty similar to a dirt track, moreso than other synthetics," said Machowsky.

Mike Smith has the mount from post 8.

Mayor Marv, whom owner Mike Pegram named for the mayor of Carson City, Nev., won on dirt last out in the Turf Paradise Derby, a 1 1/16-mile race in which he wired the field by 4 1/2 lengths.

"He ran well on dirt," said Baffert, adding that Mayor Marv, a son of Distorted Humor, is bred for the surface. "He's also getting better with age, better with racing, and I think distance is not going to be a problem."

Baffert, who noted Mayor Marv was second to top Kentucky Derby prospect The Pamplemousse in a maiden special weight at Hollywood, has given the mount to Victor Espinoza. Garrett Gomez will ride Baffert's other representative in the race, Mythical Power, who comes into the Sunland Derby off a late-running neck win in a one-mile maiden race at Santa Anita.

"I was really impressed with his race, going long for the first time," said Baffert.

Santamonicacanyon also last ran at Santa Anita, finishing second in Kelly Leak's turf allowance win. Trainer Darrell Vienna said that race was a key reason he sent the horse to New Mexico, since Kelly Leak is considered a top choice Sunday.

None of the entrants is eligible for a $200,000 bonus available to Grade 1 winners. But four horses can earn a $100,000 bonus if they win the Sunland Derby because they have graded earnings. They are Advice, Kelly Leak, Mark S the Cooler, and Mine That Bird.

* Officials project a crowd of 15,000 at Sunland on Sunday. The race will be shown on TVG.