03/01/2007 1:00AM

Great Hunter joins the chase

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Great Hunter is among four top 3-year-olds for trainer Doug O'Neill.

ARCADIA, Calif. - At the start of the year, there was little question that Great Hunter was the best of trainer Doug O'Neill's contenders for the May 5 Kentucky Derby. Since then, though, Notional has won the Risen Star Stakes, Liquidity was a close second in the Sham Stakes, and Cobalt Blue returned from a lengthy layoff with a sharp allowance win. So, O'Neill now has a problem, though it's hardly unpleasant: With so many contenders, does he think Great Hunter might now be overlooked in a game that seems to fixate on what has been done lately?

"From the trainer's or owner's end, I think the less hype the better," O'Neill said.

The hype might start anew this weekend. Great Hunter will be front and center on Saturday, when he makes his first start of the year in the Grade 2, $200,000 Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. When entries for the 1 1/16-mile race were taken here on Wednesday, Great Hunter drew post 8 in a field of nine. As the only member of the in the field, he figures to be a strong favorite.

The Lewis will be the first of just two Derby preps for Great Hunter, who has not raced since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile four months ago. O'Neill said he believes the foundation Great Hunter had last year, when he raced seven times, gives him the luxury of not racing more often this spring.

"He's already proven himself," O'Neill said during a conference call. "Our goal is the first Saturday in May. We want to build and build as we go on. So far, everything's coming together well."

Great Hunter, Liquidity, and Notional all are owned by Paul Reddam. While Liquidity and Notional were bought as 2-year-olds in training one year ago at Barretts, Great Hunter, a son of Aptitude, was privately purchased following a victory against maidens last June at Lone Star Park. O'Neill's brother, Dennis, was dispatched to scout Great Hunter for Reddam after reviewing the colt's first two races on videotape.

"I was high on the sire at the time," said Dennis O'Neill. "[Great Hunter] had run two good numbers going short, and I thought he'd be better going long. The gallop-outs on his first two races were both very impressive. I watched him gallop for two days. He had a beautiful way of going. I told Paul, 'We need to get this done no matter what it takes.' "

In five starts since being purchased by Reddam, Great Hunter has never finished worse than third. He was second in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship, Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar, and the Del Mar Futurity, then stretched out around two turns and won the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland before finishing his 2006 campaign with a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

The progress of Notional, Liquidity, and Merv Griffin-owned Cobalt Blue has forced O'Neill to divide and conquer in the hopes of keeping those horses apart as long as possible. Notional, for instance, won the San Rafael Stakes here in January, traveled to New Orleans to win the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 10, and will make his next start in either the Florida Derby on March 31 or the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7.

"Wherever Nobiz Like Shobiz goes, we won't go," Dennis O'Neill said.

Until Derby Day, that is.

In other Derby developments:

* Eight of the horses in the Derby Watch top 25 are scheduled to run over the next few days, most notably top-ranked Nobiz Like Shobiz, who is expected to head the field in the Grade 2, $350,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. Adore the Gold, Drums of Thunder, Scat Daddy, and Stormello are among those also expected to run in the Fountain of Youth.

* Also Saturday at Gulfstream is the Grade 2, $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes, which is expected to include Forefathers, Out of Gwedda, and Storm in May.

* The unbeaten Day Pass, who won last fall's Nashua Stakes, was scheduled to run Thursday night against six rivals in a $150,000 allowance race going 1 1/8 miles at Nad Al Sheba in Dubai.

* The $100,000 Battaglia Memorial at 1 1/16 miles at Turfway Park on Saturday is expected to be topped by local star Joe Got Even.

* Belgravia, who was forced to miss the Lewis because of a recent illness, has left Southern California. He was evaluated at a Lexington, Ky., clinic, and now is training at Keeneland, according to his trainer, Patrick Biancone, who said he hopes Belgravia can make the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park on March 24. Biancone said if need be, he would attempt to make the Derby off just one prep, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14.

* Garrett Gomez has picked up the mount on Zanjero for the March 10 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, trainer Steve Asmussen said.

* Soaring By will go to the Louisiana Derby, and Edgar Prado will have the mount, according to Pletcher, who trains Soaring By.

* Prado has picked up the mount on Flying First Class for the March 17 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, according to D. Wayne Lukas, the colt's trainer.

* Calvin Borel will be replaced by Luis Quinones aboard Officer Rocket for the Rebel, giving further indication that Eclipse Award champ Street Sense, whom Borel rides, will race that day in the Tampa Bay Derby.

* Ravel, the Sham Stakes winner, will head straight to the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, Pletcher said. "Everybody's on board with the plan," he said.

- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini


Who's hot: Two Oaklawn Park-based runners - Flying First Class and Officer Rocket - are new to the top 25 of Derby Watch this week. Flying First Class scored a fast maiden winofor trainer D. Wayne Lukas in his last start and will head immediately into stakes competition, with the Rebel Stakes on March 17 his target. Officer Rocket, also pointing for the Rebel, moves onto the list following his second-place finish in the Southwest Stakes for trainer Bob Holthus.

Who's not: Buffalo Man, who won the Ocala Breeders' Sales Championship on Feb. 12, was injured last week and is off the Derby trail. Also removed from the list is the unbeaten E Z Warrior. He is being forced to miss this Saturday's Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita because of a quarter crack, he is iffy for the San Felipe on March 17, and he has yet to race beyond six furlongs.

On the bubble: Out of Gwedda and Storm in May both are in the Hutcheson Stakes on Saturday at Gulfstream and could find themselves in the top 25 with a top effort in that race. Twilight Meteor, who has done most of his racing on turf and won last week's Hallandale Beach at Gulfstream, gives Todd Pletcher yet another contender. He is pointing for the Lane's End later this month at Turfway Park. Also worth following are Bwana Bull, who is awaiting the El Camino Real Derby on March 10, and Birdbirdistheword, who is scheduled to make his first start of the year on March 10 in the Louisiana Derby.

- Jay Privman