02/28/2008 12:00AM

El Gato Malo tries to stay unbeaten

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ARCADIA, Calif. - He sat off a sharp pace sprinting in his debut, immediately jumped into stakes and went around two turns, then blew past his rivals when moving into a graded stakes in his third start. Every time, El Gato Malo emerged victorious, by margins ranging from 4 1/4 lengths to 6 1/4 lengths.

This is no bad cat. This is a nice kitty.

In his brief career, El Gato Malo has displayed the kind of raw talent that has landed him on the short list of anyone's leading contenders for the May 3 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. On Saturday at Santa Anita, in the Grade 3, $200,000 Sham Stakes, El Gato Malo will try to keep his unbeaten record intact when he stretches out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time, and faces his toughest rival to date, the highly ranked Colonel John.

Five others are in the race, including Coast Guard and Reflect Times, the second- and third-place finishers in the Robert Lewis Stakes four weeks ago. But bettors likely will wager that this prep to the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 5 is a two-horse race.

El Gato Malo has tactical speed and drew well, landing post 1. He also possesses the fastest Beyer Speed Figure in the race, a 99 earned in the San Rafael Stakes on Jan. 12. He carries top weight of 120 pounds, two more than Colonel John and four more than everyone else.

"He's always had a uniqueness about him," said Craig Dollase, who trains El Gato Malo. "He's a very talented horse. He has athleticism, and he does everything with ease. He's a push-button horse."

Colonel John has raced four times, but not since Dec. 22, when he finished second to Into Mischief in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park. Eoin Harty, his trainer, said it is by design that Colonel John will have just two preps before the Kentucky Derby.

"He's a leggy individual," Harty said. "He doesn't carry any excess weight. He takes his races well, but he does lighten up between them. He's a very sensible horse. He's an easy horse to get fit and keep fit. I felt I could get away with two preps rather than three or four."

Coast Guard has been on or near the lead in both of his two-turn races, but his trainer, David Hofmans, expressed concern earlier this week over Coast Guard's final work for the race. Coast Guard's presence, or absence, would have significant impact on the pace of the race.

Reflect Times won twice sprinting before the Lewis, his lone start around two turns. His trainer, John Shirreffs, said he does not believe Reflect Times is just a late-running sprinter.

"He doesn't act like it," Shirreffs said. "He's so relaxed in his races. He's not a horse who uses up energy getting into a race."

Reflect Times is being outfitted with blinkers for the Sham "to help him focus more in the beginning," Shirreffs said.

The rest are outsiders.

Victory Pete was third in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields after defeating maidens on turf here. He has finished in the money just once in four tries on the main track.

Trevor's Clever has been third in pair of starter allowance races since defeating maiden claimers.

Success Fee is still a maiden after four tries.