08/11/2006 12:00AM

Great Hunter tops O'Neill trio

Principle Secret, trained by Chris Paasch, won his racing debut by nearly five lengths, racing near the front throughout.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The sleepy California 2-year-old division awakens Sunday at Del Mar, where the sky is the limit for the winner of the Grade 2, 6 1/2-furlong Best Pal Stakes.

"The winner is probably the favorite for the Del Mar Futurity," said trainer Doug O'Neill, whose colt Stevie Wonderboy catapulted from victory in the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity to a championship triumph last fall in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

O'Neill hopes to win the $250,000 Del Mar Futurity again Sept. 6 with one of three he entered in the $150,000 Best Pal: , runner-up in the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile; Cobalt Blue, impressive debut winner at five furlongs; and Stella's Posada, a speedster possibly in over his head Sunday.

Great Hunter leads the O'Neill trio. A stretch-runner, he must catch Stormello and Principle Secret, two fast colts moving up after sharp maiden wins. Stormello won a six-furlong race July 29 by 3 1/2 lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 90, and while the 15-day turnaround may be a concern, owner-trainer Bill Currin is not worried.

"If it was a concern, I would be stupid to run him," Currin said. "The absence of E Z Warrior means the Futurity is going to be the same group as this."

Well, almost. Prime Ruler and Baltimore Drive are fast maiden winners aiming to the Futurity. The race will not include Hollywood Juvenile winner E Z Warrior, who is sidelined with a sore shin.

Currin also could have waited for the Futurity, but said that the way Stormello came out of his maiden win "convinced me to race him, rather than work him again." He said Stormello had a three-furlong gate work in 34 seconds Aug. 4, and galloped out in 47 seconds. The half-mile time was recorded on the official work tab.

The meet's leading jockey, Victor Espinoza, rides Stormello, who will be easy to spot. He will press the pace from directly outside his primary early rival. That is Principle Secret, who won his debut by nearly five lengths on July 22 and earned an 84 Beyer Figure racing 5 1/2 furlongs.

Chris Paasch trains , a colt who was sold to owner Charles Cono after racing for Paasch's wife, Bonnie, in his debut. Paasch and Cono are loaded with 2-year-olds, with one primary goal - win the Futurity.

"If I have to run three in there, I'll do it," Paasch said.

Paasch maiden winners Prime Ruler and Baltimore Drive already are penciled in for the Del Mar Futurity. The trainer said Principle Secret would run next in either the Del Mar Futurity or the Grade 2 Belmont Futurity on Sept. 23.

Principle Secret won his debut near the front, but Paasch said "he has options, he doesn't need the lead."

The trainer expects the pace to be quick. Noting O'Neill's three runners entered, he said, "I'm sure he'll send one of them."

Also likely to heat up the pace, Paasch said, is the Bob Baffert-trained Hot Flame, who worked a bullet five furlongs in 58.60 seconds here on Tuesday. "I don't think he'll take back off that," said Paasch.

On paper, the Best Pal unfolds perfectly for Great Hunter, a closer who was purchased by owner J. Paul Reddam after a maiden win at Lone Star. A son of Aptitude, Great Hunter unleashed a huge wide run in the Hollywood Juvenile, finishing second in his first start for O'Neill.

According to O'Neill, jockey Corey Nakatani "said he probably moved a little too early. He didn't know how explosive of a kick he had.

"He's a very, very impressive 2-year-old. He acts like an older horse."

The only foreseeable Best Pal glitch concerns the jockey. Nakatani remained hospitalized Friday with an infection, and his status for Sunday is undetermined. One option is to switch David Cohen from the Reddam-owned Stella's Posada to Great Hunter, and find another rider for Stella's Posada.

O'Neill also has high hopes for the Merv Griffin-owned , who won his only start June 8. He would have greatly benefited, however, from a second start before tackling stakes rivals. O'Neill tried to run Cobalt Blue in an allowance race early in the meet, but the race did not fill.