04/30/2007 12:00AM

Going after a Derby crown

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When advised that he might be honored with an introduction to the queen, should he be fortunate enough to win Saturday's Kentucky Derby with Great Hunter, Liquidity, or Cobalt Blue, trainer Doug O'Neill wondered aloud if a high five would be appropriate, then reflected upon his most recent royal encounter.

"From what I saw in the movie, and I mean no disrespect, the queen seems like a very stern person," said O'Neill as he waited for Liquidity to tack up and gallop.

O'Neill was politely reminded that he was, as he mentioned, referring to the movie "The Queen" and actress Helen Mirren, not to be confused with Elizabeth II, of the House of Windsor.

"Right, sure," O'Neill replied. "Like I said, she seemed very tough-minded. But listen, you put me in a comfortable seat in a dark room and I'm like most trainers. Nighty-night. My wife liked the movie, but Jim Carrey could have played the queen and I wouldn't have known the difference."

Commoners from California. We are truly hopeless, impressed more by a high-producing real estate broker or a point guard than the woman who has ruled England form more than half a century. Fortunately, there is at least one horseman in Saturday's Derby who knows his way around royal protocol.

"I was presented to the queen once when she came to Keeneland," said Carl Nafzger, who will be sending champion Street Sense postward in the 133rd Derby. "They had guys with zip guns on top of the barns. I had an Irish kid working for me at the time, and when he heard about her visit . . . well, let's just say I told him to take the day off."

So, should Nafzger win his second Derby, it will be "Hey, Liz!" and "Yo, Carl. Way to go!"

"You do not speak unless spoken to," Nafzger patiently explained. "But she's great. She puts you right at ease. I don't remember what she said to me, though, because by then I'd already spoke."

All the hubbub over Helen Mirren, er, Elizabeth Rex, taking in the Derby is just swell, and all part of the usual Kentucky Derby hubbub. Personally, I'll get more of a kick out of a Kid Rock sighting, but there's no accounting for taste.

Anyway, if Southwest Stakes hero Teuflesberg jumps up with another one of his bulldog performances and wins the whole thing Saturday, QEII will be taking a back seat to the real Derby queen for a day, Jamie Sanders.

"The horse is peaking at just the right time," Sanders said at Churchill Downs on Monday morning. "Guess I'd better learn how to curtsy, just in case."

Sanders, who hails from the central Kentucky town of Brownsville, shares the training of Teuflesberg with her fiance, Donnie Kelly, which is only right, since they picked him out together at a Keeneland sale, did the bidding to get him for $9,000 in pocket change, and basically never let the big colt out of their sight.

"I heard a guy on Channel 18 over in Lexington call him 'Toothlessberg,' " said Kelly, flashing a grin that was about one fang shy of a mouthful. "That would be me, thanks to a bull I rode."

About every third sentence from Sanders about Teuflesberg has some "Donnie this" or "Donnie that" reference, so there is no confusing how the credit is shared. The trainers own the colt in partnership with family friend Gary Logsdon. Still, it will be the 41-year-old Sanders in the spotlight, if for no other reason than a woman has so far neglected to train the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

Then again, only a dozen have tried, along with about a gazillion men who have shown up on Derby Day with a lot less horse than Teuflesberg, a son of the Irish-trained juvenile sensation Johannesburg. Sanders gets on him regularly and knows him like a brother, just as she did all the major Derby horses trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito while she worked for him until a year and a half ago.

"When we first started training him, he was a stall walker," Sanders said of Teuflesberg. "We had two tires in his stall because of it, but it didn't help. We finally figured out he just wanted to get out, so we started taking him out early and he was fine. He absolutely thrives on work, more than any horse I've ever been around."

This helps explain why Teuflesberg has started 15 times, more than the winners of the Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, and Wood Memorial combined.

"He reminds me of some of those great old horses of the past, like Whirlaway, who ran 16 times as a 2-year-old," Sanders said. "That's him, a real iron horse."

Being associated with many of Zito's Kentucky Derby runners, including victorious Go for Gin, gives Sanders a perspective that few rookie Derby trainers enjoy. Obviously, she knows what it takes.

"Especially that last breeze right before the race," she said. "If you do it the right way, you give them just enough to want more. Then they'll be there when you need them on Saturday, and that's just how he breezed the other day. I really think he's getting ready to run the best race of his life."