07/09/2003 11:00PM

Hard to look past Senor Swinger

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Unless somebody suddenly improves or Senor Swinger badly regresses, the eight 3-year-olds facing Senor Swinger in Saturday's $500,000 Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs will be battling for second money.

Contested at 1 1/4 miles on turf, the Virginia Derby headlines a card that also includes the Grade 3, $200,000 All Along for fillies and mares, and the $50,000 David "Zeke" Ferguson Memorial, a Grade 3 steeplechase.

Senor Swinger, fifth on dirt in the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, and Preakness, is 2 for 2 since trainer Bob Baffert switched him to turf. The 97 Beyer Speed Figure he earned for his win in the Grade 3 Crown Royal American Turf at Churchill Downs is superior to the best figures posted by his competitors in the Virginia Derby. Senor Swinger's 103 Beyer for his 5 1/2-length win in the Grade 3 Jefferson Cup is 10 points better than any of his rivals'.

If an upset occurs, it would likely come from either the Bill Mott-trained Silver Tree or European shipper King's Drama.

Mott and jockey Edgar Prado combined to win last year's Virginia Derby with Orchard Park. The lightly raced Silver Tree won his first two grass races, both in Florida, then was given a freshening. He finished third despite a wide trip in his stakes debut last month at Woodbine. Silver Tree should be fitter with that start under his belt.

King's Drama won a Group 3 stakes race in France last month. The Timeform rating he earned equates to roughly a 94 on the Beyer scale. The only horse in the field to have run 10 furlongs on turf, King's Drama will be ridden by Brice Blanc and race on Lasix for the first time.

The 1 1/8-mile All Along appears to be a more competitive race, even though there is a legitimate favorite in Grade 1 stakes winner Dress to Thrill.

In her North American debut as a 3-year-old last fall, Dress to Thrill was ambitiously placed against males in the Breeders' Cup Mile. She finished eighth, but came back five weeks later to win the Grade 1 Matriarch at Hollywood Park, beating Eclipse Award winner Golden Apples.

Dress to Thrill's only start since then came in May, when she finished fifth of six in the Grade 1 Gamely at Hollywood.

If Dress to Thrill can't regain the same form she displayed last year, there are several others capable of winning.

Carib Lady, another former European, won the Grade 3 Gallorette on soft turf at Pimlico, but disliked the bog-like conditions at Belmont when she raced far back throughout the Grade 3 Just a Game three weeks later. Trainer Todd Pletcher has given Carib Lady a month to regroup.

Golden Corona missed by a neck in last year's All Along. In six starts since then, however, Golden Corona has been unable to finish better than third. Previously trained by Joe Orseno, Golden Corona makes her first start for Justin Nixon.

Lady Linda was fourth behind Carib Lady after setting the pace in the Gallorette, then prepped for the All Along with a sharp win over the Colonial course in an allowance race June 22.

Lady of the Future, beaten less than three lengths in the 2002 All Along, makes just her second start of the year after finishing third in the Gallorette, a length behind Carib Lady.

o Praise the Prince, an 8-year-old gelding who has not been worse than third in seven consecutive graded stakes races dating to August 2001, heads a field of 12 for the Ferguson Steeplechase at 2 1/4 miles.