03/01/2007 1:00AM

Hard to look beyond Great Hunter


ARCADIA, Calif. - By virtue of a strong series of performances in graded stakes last fall, Great Hunter has plenty of cash to get into the inevitable 20-horse field of the May 5 Kentucky Derby.

Starting Saturday, when he makes his first start of the year in the Grade 2, $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, Great Hunter will be attempting to build the foundation toward the Derby. But considering that his main goal is nine weeks away, he has not raced in four months, and the pace of the race might not flatter his late-running style, handicappers may be looking to try and knock off a horse who figures to be one of the shorter prices in the pick six sequence.

Trouble is, there are not many alluring options. Of the nine 3-year-olds entered in the 1 1/16-mile Lewis, only Great Hunter is ranked in the top 25 of Derby Watch. He is the only stakes winner in the field, and the only one who has even finished in the money in a graded stakes race. If trainer Doug O'Neill was desirous of easing Great Hunter back to the races, he could not have found a more inviting spot.

Great Hunter has not raced since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs to rail-skimming Street Sense.

"The Breeders' Cup track bias worked against Great Hunter," O'Neill said. "He was in lane 7 turning for home, then he started to flounder."

After that, Great Hunter got a nice vacation.

"He got a little belly, but the last three weeks he's tightened down, O'Neill said."

O'Neill is usually judicious with his workouts, but Great Hunter has had a fairly aggressive schedule, with a series of works spaced every seven days over Hollywood Park's Cushion Track surface. The Lewis - formerly the Santa Catalina - will be Great Hunter's first start at Santa Anita.

Boutrous, who drew the outside post - one spot outside Great Hunter - comes off a second-place finish Jan. 28 in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields in which he had to check sharply twice near the quarter pole. He finally split horses, but by then the winner, Bwana Bull, was long gone. Like Great Hunter, Boutrous rallies from off the pace.

"He seemed to bounce back fine, and he's had plenty of time between races," said his trainer, Craig Dollase. "He should get better with age and distance. I still don't think we're at his best distance yet."

The lack of pace could benefit Saint Paul, who was purchased privately following a maiden win Dec. 29 at Calder, and transferred to trainer Bob Baffert. Saint Paul lost his first four races, then led from start to finish against just four rivals when fitted with blinkers for the first time.

"He's got speed," Baffert said. "I don't know how much class he's got, but he's working well."

Sam P. ships in from Florida, where he was a distant fourth to Nobiz Like Shobiz four weeks ago in the Holy Bull. He figures to get a good trip, stalking the pace of Saint Paul.