05/02/2005 12:00AM

Hoping for another smooth ride

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For Craig Dollase, the toughest part of running his first horse in the Kentucky Derby is already over. The plane landed.

When Dollase emerged from his Delta red-eye early Monday morning from the West Coast, accompanied by his wife and two little girls, he breathed one of those deep, soulful sighs that said, in essence, "There, that wasn't so bad." To his credit, he refrained from kneeling.

It had been years since the 34-year-old Dollase had subjected himself to a commercial flight. Sure, he had been treated to the occasional trip in a patron's private jet. But that's more like space travel, with complimentary champagne.

"Turbulence" is Dollase's one-word explanation for his particular phobia, and who can argue? Rough rides up there in those jam-packed DC-10's can be a nightmare. What other phenomenon combines the giddy pleasures of severe nausea and a mortal fear of imminent death . . . except, perhaps, the first turn of the Kentucky Derby.

Fortunately for Dollase, his Derby colt is a rock-solid little soldier who gives lie to the cliche that Thoroughbreds are a flighty, fearful lot. Wilko, winner of the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile for Paul Reddam and Susan Roy, is the kind of horse who would be giving pony rides this week if he wasn't so busy getting ready for the 131st running of America's most famous race.

"That's got to help him a lot, especially on the day of the race," Dollase said Monday. "Horses can lose it on the walk over there in front of a hundred thousand people. I've seen it happen."

Dollase has done the walk before, with three Derby starters trained by his father and mentor, Wally Dollase. None of them hit the board, but the experiences can only help.

"Really, there's not much to worry about when it comes to this colt, now that he made it through the weather in California this winter," Dollase said. "He's the kind of colt who's always going forward, never giving up. I'd have to think that's what you need in a Kentucky Derby."

Wilko, of course, comes saddled with the statistical albatross that a BC Juvenile winner has never won the Kentucky Derby. There are people who actually say - on television, no less - that until it happens they won't believe it can happen.

Well, fine. But since 1984, when Chief's Crown won the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the major 2-year-old events have lost considerable luster across the board as major Derby indicators.

New Yorkers genuflect at the altar of Belmont's Champagne Stakes, but guess how many of the last 21 Champagne winners have won the Kentucky Derby? One: Sea Hero. Californians have no right to be cocky either. The Hollywood Futurity, their premier late-season 2-year-old event, has produced the same number since 1984. His name was Real Quiet. And in the Midwest, there is Keeneland's significant Breeders' Futurity, which has given us exactly zero Derby winners since the Breeders' Cup came around.

Wilko has at least two things most of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners have not possessed come Derby time. First, he is in training. A lot of BC Juvenile winners don't even get this far. And then, he is a thoroughly seasoned campaigner, with 14 starts to his name at 11 different racecourses between England and the United States.

"I guess there's not much left that can surprise him out there," said Dollase, who took over Wilko's training after the Breeders' Cup from his British trainer, Jeremy Noseda. "All the places he's run, I can imagine he's been bounced around out there a lot."

As an added bonus, Wilko might have his bad luck behind him. The wet California winter played havoc with a quarter crack in his left fore. And then, in his first start as a 3-year-old, he emerged from the San Felipe Stakes with a crack in his right fore.

"That was really the only time he ran a little careful, and it made sense," Dollase said. "He was patched right after the San Felipe, but nothing since then. The last month has gone amazingly well."

As he works his way though his first exposure to personal Derby pressure, Dollase finds himself surrounded by more family than media. And that's just fine. If he loses, they'll still speak well of him.

Racing runs deep and wide in the Dollase clan. Parents Wally and Cincy have four children, all of them raised around horses at the farm they once owned near the California town of Atascadero. Of them, only daughter Carrie was daring enough to find a life outside the racetrack.

Craig became a trainer and married Nancy Carbajal, the daughter of a trainer. Aimee is a trainer and still works as her father's chief assistant. Michelle, an accomplished horsewoman, ended her marriage to jockey Corey Nakatani last year and resettled with her children in Shelbyville, Ky., between Louisville and Lexington. There she owns and operates Over View Farm, a lay-up facility whose client list includes Bobby Frankel. Wally Dollase has relocated his public stable in Kentucky, in part to help Michelle gain a foothold.

"There's a real comfort level being able to ship into my dad's barn," Craig Dollase said. "But after being here with his Derby horses, it's pretty exciting to have the first on my own. Right now I'm not even thinking about the plane ride home."