12/11/2006 1:00AM

General Darby looks like smart buy

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CHICAGO - There are Thoroughbreds bought like The Green Monkey, the unraced 2-year-old whose $16 million purchase price made him a story before he was anywhere close to making a start. And then there are the General Darbys of the equine world, a horse bought out of a Missouri field as a yearling.

"He was kind of a homely looking baby, but he was strong," recalled trainer Eddie Essenpreis, who tromped out into that field just south of the Iowa border to check out General Darby long before he had ever thought about setting foot on the racetrack.

So far, in realized return on investment, it's General Darby $60,290 and The Green Monkey $0. And while owners John and Lois Auer do not figure to be going toe-to-toe with Sheikh Mohammed or the Coolmore people at the next big Thoroughbred auction, they stand a decent chance of winning the featured race Wednesday at Hawthorne.

General Darby, an Iowa-bred by the little-known stallion Kugelis (an unraced full brother to Canadian champion Wando, Essenpreis points out), looks tough in Wednesday's eighth race, carded for second-level allowance horses at 1 1/16 miles on a dirt track that recently has favored front-end horses like General Darby.

While horses racing on the early lead went 16 for 45 in all Hawthorne races last racing week, speedsters were 8 for 18 in routes. Breaking from post 8 in his most recent start, General Darby settled in second just off a slow pace that might in the end have compromised his chances, though he finished third by two noses. Wednesday, though he has post 6, General Darby stands a good chance of clearing those drawn to his inside and dictating the early tempo, and he might prove difficult to catch.

The first trick is getting General Darby to Chicago. Essenpreis's home track is Fairmount Park, and he has a farm in downstate Lebanon, Ill. It's a five-hour drive to Hawthorne, and either Essenpreis or his wife, Shellye, will be doing the driving. "It's kind of a chore, but the thing is I've got the farm here, with a wife and kids, and it's kind of nice to be able to stay at home this time of year," Essenpreis said.

One key rival is Alpha Tejano. Recently 10th in a Churchill Downs turf race, Alpha Tejano won a seven-furlong allowance at Keeneland this fall, and last year was a sharp maiden winner at Hawthorne. Alamagnus, fourth behind General Darby last out, also figures to attract betting support.