04/12/2002 12:00AM

Johar a Derby horse to watch - on turf

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PHOENIX - With all the hubbub over Saturday's Wood, Blue Grass, and Arkansas Derby there's the tendency to overlook a Derby prep at Santa Anita Sunday.

No, not for that Derby. Instead, the $75,000 La Puente for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles on the turf may give a glimpse of possible major players in races like the Del Mar Derby or Hollywood Derby.

The likely favorite is Mountain Rage, trained by Bob Baffert. He has won three of four starts on grass, including a two-length win March 14 in the $75,000 Academy Road at Santa Anita. He has shown versatility and professionalism, and figures to be very tough to handle in the La Puente.

But anyone who saw the Dick Mandella-trained Johar win his maiden in February at 1 1/8 miles on the turf, then win a mile allowance race on this turf course March 28, knows he could be the type of budding star who can turn the trick.

Johar, owned by The Thoroughbred Corporation, sat last for the first half of that mile turf race. After six furlongs he still had just one horse beaten. But he swung out for the stretch run and blasted home, winning by more than three lengths and earning a nice 93 Beyer.

It isn't really a shocker that Johar has turned out to be a nice horse on the turf. He's by Gone West, a terrific sire of turf runners, who has thrown two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner Da Hoss. Johar is out of Windsharp, who won 11 of 29 races, over $1.2 million, and six stakes, including the Grade 1 Beverly Hills and Grade 2 Santa Ana and beat males in the Grade 1 San Luis Rey and Grade 2 San Luis Obispo. She was champion older mare and champion turf mare in Canada.

Johar is Windsharp's first foal, and if he's any indication, her others (she has a 2-year-old named Dessert by Storm Cat and a yearling by Storm Cat) bear watching.

So can Johar beat Mountain Rage Sunday?

"It will take one faster than Mountain Rage, I guess," Mandella said with his customary droll sense of humor. "I like my horse. I'm not surprised at how fast he's developed on the grass. We were actually disappointed that he didn't do what we thought he could on the dirt, because he trained like a good horse, period. I'm disappointed that he wasn't able to do the same on the dirt, but with his breeding, we were confident that if he ever got on the turf, he'd do it."

Mountain Rage, of course, isn't just going to lie down for him. A son of Mecke trained by Bob Baffert, Mountain Rage may have a bit more early speed than Johar, which would allow him first run. But if Johar can duplicate his finish in his other turf races, he may be the new sheriff in town, at least on the turf.

Santa Anita Derby fallout

The general consensus is that the Santa Anita Derby, being a slowly run affair, will have little bearing on the outcome of the Kentucky Derby.

I couldn't disagree more.

Sure, it took Came Home a while to come home, but come home he did. Remember that in 1992 some were poo-poohing what they called a slow Santa Anita Derby, won by

A.P. Indy with Bertrando second, and Casual Lies third. I believe that had A.P. Indy been healthy enough he would have won the Derby, and I think his Peter Pan and Belmont wins validate that. Casual Lies had the lead in midstretch of the Derby and ran second.

And look at what other Californians have done this year. After running third in a Santa Anita allowance race, Azillion ran second in the Grade 2 Spiral at Turfway; on Saturday he was to run in the Blue Grass. Ocean Sound ran fourth behind Came Home in the San Rafael and then finished second in the Grade 3 Rebel at Oaklawn. Should Sunday Break or Medaglia d'Oro run big in Saturday's Wood, that would give further credence to the power of the Southern California 3-year-olds.

Does that mean I'm picking Came Home to win the Derby? Not exactly. What it means is the so-called sluggish time of the Santa Anita Derby needs to be taken in context with the other preps and what the other prospects are doing.

Did they run fast in the Florida Derby preps? No. Did they run fast at Oaklawn or Fair Grounds? No.

So knock the Santa Anita Derby all you want. The results across country say the power may still rest in Southern California. And even if Came Home finds furlong number 10 too much to handle, that doesn't figure to be the case with Easy Grades, second in the Santa Anita Derby. It also doesn't figure to be the case with U S S Tinosa, brutalized early and often in the Santa Anita Derby to the point where he simply spit the bit on rider Kent Desormeaux.

This year, more than any other, raw time means less because the competition is so closely bunched. If, say, Medaglia d'Oro were to win Saturday's Wood by five in a fast time, well then I'd have to reconsider. As for Harlan's Holiday, he looked good when he won the Florida Derby, but the time wasn't anything to write home about and the competition was suspect at best.

Which brings me to three words the way things stand as this is written: Essence of Dubai.