05/01/2008 12:00AM

Elite Squadron back off near-miss

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In a 20-year training career, Jimmy Baker hasn't taken many tougher beats than the one he absorbed three weeks ago at Keeneland. Baker watched in delight, then utter agony, when his stable star, Elite Squadron, led every step but the last one at 38-1 in the $400,000 Commonwealth Stakes.

It will all be made better Saturday if Elite Squadron can muster just a little more follow-through in the first of six Derby Day stakes, the Grade 2, $250,000 Churchill Downs Handicap.

Elite Squadron will be ridden again by John Velazquez when he breaks from post 1 in a field of nine in the seven-furlong CD Handicap.

"He loves this track," said Baker. "It doesn't look like there's a lot of speed in there, and the 1-hole should be good for him."

It's a well-matched field with no clear-cut favorite, and hardly any of the nine can be easily tossed.

One major would-be contender is Wanderin Boy, an earner of more than $950,000. Wanderin Boy was cross-entered in the Alysheba Stakes on Friday at Churchill, and trainer Nick Zito said he would look at both races before deciding which might best suit him.

Other players of note in this 74th running of the CD Cap include Thousand Words, fifth as the lukewarm favorite in the Commonwealth; Noonmark, winner of the Mr. Prospector Handicap in January at Gulfstream; and Hewitts, a swift California invader making his stakes debut. The others in the field are Junior College, Island Warrior, Carnacks Choice, and Spotsgone.