10/10/2002 11:00PM

Inesperado vs. usual suspects


ARCADIA, Calif. - Bettors have become so familiar with the 3-year-old turf division in California that past performances are hardly necessary to identify the most likely winner of the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby on Sunday.

After all, it seems the race already has been run several times with the same result - Inesperado in front. Trained by Bobby Frankel, Inesperado's grip on the division has tightened with every start. He won the Grade 3 Cinema in June at Hollywood Park by a nose; the Grade 3 La Jolla Handicap in August at Del Mar; and scored his most impressive U.S. victory when he dominated the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby in early September.

Barring the unforeseen, Inesperado should win again Sunday. The 8-for-13 Inesperado faces a familiar cast, including Del Mar Derby two-three finishers Johar and Rock Opera. Nine entered the $150,000 Oak Tree Derby. New shooters are Dream Machine, who had an excuse for a disappointing effort last out, and Frankel comebacker Royal Gem. World Light, Mananan McLir, Mountain Rage, and Sunkosi also were entered.

The only real change since Inesperado's last start on Sept. 7 has been Frankel's exodus from California. Over the past five weeks, Frankel has based his operation at Belmont Park while starting only eight horses in California. Through Friday, he had not won a race on the West Coast since the Del Mar Derby.

Owned by 3 Plus U Stable, Inesperado's one-length margin of victory in the Del Mar Derby belies his dominance. Jockey Corey Nakatani did not move on the colt until the field turned for home, by which time runner-up Johar already was under a drive. Inesperado kicked to the lead, won with plenty left, has trained steadily since, and enters the Sunday stakes as a standout.

Trainer Richard Mandella said Johar is training "super." He'll have to run that way, for it appears that Inesperado has Johar's number.

Said Mandella: "His Oceanside and Del Mar Derby, he could have won as easy as not."

In fact, Johar ran well in both runner-up finishes and returns Sunday to the course over which he won two of three during the winter meet. Alex Solis rides Johar.

Dream Machine's runner-up finish in his U.S. debut in the Oceanside suggested he would be a force in the division. He bombed at even-money in his next start, however, finishing a dull third. Trainer Julio Canani said Dream Machine had a 105 temperature the following day, which explains his effort.

Canani said Dream Machine "looks awesome" for his return in the Oak Tree Derby. The question is whether he is good enough.

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