01/30/2003 12:00AM

Kafwain starts down road

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ARCADIA, Calif. - With his reputation already firmly established among the nation's Triple Crown hopefuls, Kafwain is not in a must-win situation when he makes his 3-year-old debut in Saturday's $150,000 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita.

Trainer Bob Baffert considers the seven-furlong San Vicente as a prep to more important races in coming months, and ideally the Kentucky Derby, for Kafwain, the runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"This race is just a prep," Baffert said. "It's either do this or sit on him for a month and a half. I'd rather put a race into him. We're looking down the road. We're looking for the first Saturday in May."

Kafwain has run well in sprints - he won the Best Pal Stakes over 6 1/2 furlongs last August and was second to stablemate Icecoldbeeratreds in the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity - but will be tested in the San Vicente.

Three of the six entrants - Runnin' on Nitro, Southern Image, and Sum Trick - were impressive maiden winners in their last starts.

Runnin' on Nitro was an eight-length winner of a maiden race over 5 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park on Dec. 18, the gelding's second career start. Eastern-based jockey Jorge Chavez was aboard for the maiden win and returns to California to ride Runnin' on Nitro on Saturday.

Since the maiden race, Runnin' on Nitro has displayed exceptionally speed in several workouts, giving trainer Wesley Ward an excuse to make bold predictions.

"I don't think he'll lose," Ward said. "I know there will be stiff competition. That Kafwain is a monster, and he'll be flying at us, but my horse is training great. He's training like he won't lose."

Southern Image and Runnin' on Nitro will contribute to a fast pace. Sum Trick, the winner of the Riley Allison Futurity at Sunland Park on Dec. 29, can also be close to the pace.

Southern Image was the flashy winner of a maiden race over 6 1/2 furlongs on Dec. 26. He led throughout, winning by three lengths. Trainer Mike Machowsky could have started Southern Image in a two-turn allowance race last week, but waited for the San Vicente.

"It's a tough race," he said. "I don't deny that."

Although Southern Image was in front in his maiden race, Machowsky insists that speed is not the colt's only asset.

"Every morning, he sits off horses and takes dirt," he said. "I was surprised the way he won the other day. If he runs back to his opening-day race, we'll be in good shape."

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