02/22/2006 12:00AM

Here's your early favorite

Brother Derek, training at Santa Anita last month, is 3 for 3 at two turns, including in the San Rafael and Hollywood Futurity in his last two starts.

ARCADIA, Calif. - When the horses crossed the wire in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile nearly four months ago at Belmont Park, Brother Derek was only the fourth-best horse in the race. Since then, however, the victorious Stevie Wonderboy has been injured, runner-up Henny Hughes has gone to the black hole of Dubai, and First Samurai has yet to prove his ability around two turns.

Brother Derek, meanwhile, has won both the Hollywood Futurity and San Rafael Stakes, which coupled with his victory in last year's Norfolk Stakes makes him unbeaten around two turns. That aptitude, along with his consistency, has made Brother Derek the favorite in the inaugural edition of Daily Racing Form's 2006 .

Brother Derek is 6-1 to win the May 6 Kentucky Derby on the line set by Mike Watchmaker, DRF's national handicapper. First Samurai, who was second most recently in the Hutcheson Stakes, and Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Bluegrass Cat are next at 8-1. Henny Hughes, whose distance ability is viewed with great skepticism and who is not scheduled to race again for at least another month, is 30-1 on Watchmaker's line.

Brother Derek, who is owned by Cecil Peacock, is a popular horse, not only because of his win streak, but because his trainer, Dan Hendricks, has retained his wickedly dry sense of humor and flinty resolve in the face of a tragic accident in July 2004 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He also reeks of integrity: Hendricks has not been afraid to speak out, on the record, against trainers who have been caught breaking the rules. If Brother Derek makes it to the Derby as the favorite, Hendricks will be the most sought-after subject at the Derby in years.

This is the first top Derby contender for Hendricks, 47, but he has a lifetime of experience to bring to this endeavor. His father and uncle trained, and Hendricks worked for Willard Proctor and then was a longtime assistant to Hall of Famer Richard Mandella before going on his own 20 years ago. And in years when Hendricks did not have a Derby prospect, he watched, listened, and learned.

"At this point we're so far ahead in terms of his progress that I'm trying to make sure he stays on an even keel and doesn't peak too early," Hendricks said at Santa Anita, where he is based. "I'm trying to mellow him out. It's a fine line. You don't want to wear him out, but you want to do enough.

"It's fun. It's fun to be involved in it. Cecil and I are just taking it in. It's fun to be in the hunt. I've watched it from the outside. People don't realize the level of interest already from the media and the fans. It's unbelievable. It's already more than I could imagine, so I can't imagine what it would be like in April and May. It's far more than the Breeders' Cup. This is the race. This is what everybody points for."

Brother Derek is scheduled to make his next start in the Grade 2, $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 4 at Santa Anita, where his rivals could include Latent Heat, a fast recent maiden winner for trainer Bobby Frankel. After that, Brother Derek is scheduled to race in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on April 8 before heading to Churchill Downs.

"Everyone has to worry about the mile and a quarter," Hendricks said of the Derby distance. "The Santa Anita Derby will tell a lot. I don't think it's going to be a problem for this horse. We know he likes a mile and a sixteenth, and I'm not scared about a mile and an eighth, but who knows about a mile and a quarter? It's a long ways away."

It would be wrong to read doubt into that passage. It is, in fact, refreshing realism. So far, though, Brother Derek looks better equipped than most to handle the distance.

But there are plenty of others ready to take aim at him. This first Derby Watch list has a number of horses who appear to be both fast and capable of handling 10 furlongs. The Derby Watch has runners scattered across the country and, in one case, halfway around the world.

In California, three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert has Derby Watch members Bob and John and Point Determined, both of whom may make their next start in the Grade 2, $250,000 San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 18 at Santa Anita. A.P. Warrior and Your Tent or Mine are also possible for that race.

In Arkansas, Lawyer Ron, Music School, and Steppenwolfer head the probable field in the $250,000 Southwest Stakes at one mile on Saturday at Oaklawn Park. Expected to head to Oaklawn for the Grade 3, $300,000 Rebel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 18 are Keyed Entry, who won the Hutcheson; Private Vow, who has not raced since capturing the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall; and Barbican.

In Florida, a large field is in the offing for the Grade 2, $300,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park on March 4, including First Samurai, who will be making his first start around two turns. His rivals are expected to include Corinthian, Flashy Bull, Great Point, Itsallboutthechase, and My Golden Song. Also scheduled to run March 4 at Gulfstream, but in the Grade 2, $150,000 Swale Stakes at seven furlongs, is Noonmark, who, like Private Vow, is trained by Steve Asmussen.

Barbaro, the Holy Bull winner, is expected to bypass the Fountain of Youth and await the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby at 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream on April 1.

Bluegrass Cat will stay on the Tampa trail to the Derby and return there for the Grade 3, $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby at 1 1/16 miles on March 18.

In New York, Achilles of Troy could have a showdown with Maryland invader Sweetnorthernsaint in the Grade 3, $200,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 18. Also possible for that race is Strong Contender, an allowance winner Wednesday at Gulfstream. The Gotham will be run on the inner dirt course this year and will be a two-turn race, at 1 1/16 miles. In years past, it was a one-turn mile.

And in Dubai, Henny Hughes is preparing for the Group 2 United Arab Emirates Derby at 1 1/8 miles on March 25.

Road to the 2006 Derby

Key stakes races leading to the 132nd Kentucky Derby, 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs on May 6, 2006.

Jan. 1TROPICAL PARK DERBY (G3)Crc1 1/8 m T1:46.65Barbaro (97), Wise River, Lewis Michael
Jan. 7AVENTURA STAKESGP1 m1:37.75Doctor Decherd (85), Itsallboutthechase, My Golden Song
Jan. 7COUNT FLEET STAKESAqu1 m 70 yds.1:39.61Achilles of Troy (104), Extra Bend, Platinum Couple
Jan. 8SAN MIGUEL STAKESSA6 furlongs1:08.59Too Much Bling (100), Cause to Believe, Bound to Be MVP
Jan. 14RISEN STAR STAKESLaD1 1/16m1:43.13Lawyer Ron (106), Mark of Success, Hyte Regency
Jan. 14SAN RAFAEL STAKES (G2)SA1 m 1:36.11Brother Derek (107), Stevie Wonderboy, Wanna Runner
Jan. 28SUNSHINE MILLIONS DASHSA6 furlongs1:08.94Da Stoops (109), Changing Weather, Brite Maneuvers
Jan. 29EL CAMINO REAL DERBY (G3)BM1 1/16m1:41.81Cause to Believe (92), Objective, Bold Chieftain
Feb. 4SHAM STAKES (G3)SA1 1/8 m1:49.15Bob and John (96), Hawkinsville, Sacred Light
Feb. 4WEBN STAKESTP1 m1:38.99Warrior Within (96), Malameeze, Final Copy
Feb. 4HOLY BULL STAKES (G3)GP1 1/8 m1:49.32Barbaro (95), Great Point, My Golden Song
Feb. 4MIRACLE WOOD STAKESLrl1 m1:38.69Sweetnorthernsaint (102), Vegas Play, Sierra Quorum
Feb. 4HUTCHESON STAKES (G2)GP7 1/2 fur.1:27.12Keyed Entry (110), First Samurai, Express News
Feb. 11TURF PARADISE DERBYTuP1 1/16 m 1:43.90Keagan (88), Sky Diving, Soft Seventeen
Feb. 11WHIRLAWAY STAKESAqu1 1/16 m1:43.28Achilles of Troy (103), One Way Fight, Rob'em Blind
Feb. 12SAN VICENTE STAKES (G2)SA7 furlongs1:22.50Too Much Bling (94), Peace Chant, New Joysey Jeff
Feb. 18FRED "CAPPY" CAPOSSELA S.Aqu6 furlongs 1:11.80Like Now (99), Sunshine Alpine, Strummer
Feb. 18SAM F. DAVIS STAKESTam1 1/16 m1:44.17Bluegrass Cat (96), Deputy Glitters, R Loyal Man

Remaining stakes:

March 4FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH S. (G2)GP1 1/8 m
March 4SWALE STAKES (G2)GP7 furlongs
March 18SAN FELIPE STAKES (G2)SA1 1/16 m
March 18TAMPA BAY DERBY (G3)Tam1 1/16 m
March 18GOTHAM STAKES (G3)Aqu1 1/16m
March 18REBEL STAKES (G3)OP1 1/16 m
March 25LANE'S END STAKES (G2)TP1 1/8 m
March 25U.A.E. DERBY (G2)NAS1 1/4 m
April 1FLORIDA DERBY (G1)GP1 1/8 m
April 1WINSTAR DERBYSun1 1/8 m
April 8SANTA ANITA DERBY (G1)SA1 1/8 m
April 8ILLINOIS DERBY (G2)Haw1 1/8 m
April 8WOOD MEMORIAL (G1)Aqu1 1/8 m
April 15ARKANSAS DERBY (G2)OP1 1/8 m
April 15BLUE GRASS STAKES (G1)Kee1 1/8 m
April 22LEXINGTON STAKES (G2)Kee1 1/16 m
April 29WITHERS STAKES (G3) Aqu1 m
April 29DERBY TRIAL (G3)CD1 m