11/25/2011 2:03PM

Hollywood: Willcox Inn gives Stidham a great shot at Hollywood Derby

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Four-Footed Fotos
Willcox Inn, trained by Mike Stidham and ridden by Robby Albarado, wins the Hawthorne Derby over a firm turf course.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Hollywood Park had its first fall meeting in 1981, right about the time Mike Stidham was starting his training career. Stidham began in Florida but quickly relocated to California, and he remained here for more than a decade before eventually winding up in the East and Midwest, where he has developed into one of the more potent forces in the country.

The journey comes full circle on Sunday for Stidham. He has returned to Hollywood Park, where he once was based, for the first time in nearly two decades. Befitting the stature of his stable, Stidham has arrived with one of the top contenders for the Grade 1, $250,000 Hollywood Derby in Willcox Inn, who seeks his fourth stakes win in his last five starts.

“It’s pretty exciting to be back with a chance in a Grade 1,” Stidham said Friday morning.

He’s got a heck of a chance. Willcox Inn was a powerful winner of the Hawthorne Derby on Oct. 15, and earlier this summer he won the Arlington Classic and American Derby at Arlington Park. The Hollywood Derby is at 1 1/4 miles on turf, and though Willcox Inn failed in his lone attempt at that distance in the Secretariat Stakes, the ground that day at Arlington was yielding. On Sunday, Willcox Inn should have a firm course, like he encountered at Hawthorne.

“The day of the Secretariat, he couldn’t sustain his run over that ground,” Stidham said. “We’ve always felt that with his action he’d prefer a little firmer ground.”

Willcox Inn, to be ridden by Robby Albarado, drew the outside post in a field of 12. He’ll have to overcome the post as well as a deep field featuring accomplished local runners and some enticing imports.

Chief among the imports is Slumber, who has never finished out of the money in four races at 1 1/4 miles. He arrived this week from Britain with trainer Charles Hills, who will turn over Slumber to Bill Mott after the race.

“He’s improving,” Hills said Friday morning. “He prefers good, fast ground. He’s quite lightly raced. We had this in mind before his last start, and after he won, we decided to come.”

Also flying in from Britain is Western Aristocrat, who already did a hit-and-run in the United States last month when he won the Jamaica Handicap at Belmont.

The locals are led by Ultimate Eagle and Venomous, who took the first two spots in the Oak Tree Derby at Santa Anita on Oct. 15. Ultimate Eagle led from start to finish in that race, and he again looks like he can control the pace in the Hollywood Derby because he has far more natural speed than Western Aristocrat. Ultimate Eagle set a measured pace in the Oak Tree Derby, which trainer Mike Pender said is a sign that Ultimate Eagle is improving.

“He’s learning to rate, to harness his speed,” Pender said. “He’s made so much progress just in the last month since the Oak Tree Derby. He’s such an outstanding prospect.”

Ultimate Eagle is unbeaten in three starts since moving to the turf.

Cozy Kitten, a late-running third in the Oak Tree Derby after shipping from Kentucky, remained locally for the Hollywood Derby. As in the Oak Tree Derby, in which he broke from post 11 in a field of 14, he again drew wide here, landing post 10 of 12.

Cloud Man was fifth in the Oak Tree Derby but moves from an outside post in that race to the rail this time. Imagining is making his stakes debut after winning once in four starts in New York for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. Casino Host was sixth behind Western Aristocrat in the Jamaica.

Irish Art could be a pace factor following a downhill sprint win at Santa Anita. Surrey Star was seventh with a wide trip in the Oak Tree Derby. El Pocho is making his United States debut after winning one of two starts in his native Chile.

The Hollywood Derby is the ninth race on a 10-race card that begins at 12:30 Pacific time. The card includes the Grade 3 Generous for 2-year-olds, which goes as the fifth race, the start of the pick six.