05/16/2005 12:00AM

Kirkwoods roll on with Southern Africa

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Lone Star Park
Southern Africa might head to the Belmont off his Lone Star Derby win.

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Southern Africa kept the Al and Saundra Kirkwood train rolling last Saturday when he won the Grade 3, $300,000 at Lone Star Park for trainer Mike Puhich. The win was the latest accomplishment in what has been an outstanding year for the Kirkwoods, an owner-and-breeder team based in Washington state.

Valentine Dancer, who races for the Kirkwoods and is trained by Craig Lewis, set the tone for the year in January when she won the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf for the second straight time. She would go on to become the couple's first homebred millionaire, and is expected to ship to Lone Star this month for the Grade 3, $200,000 WinStar Distaff.

Southern Africa, who was purchased privately by the Kirkwoods, struck for the couple in February, when he won the $100,000 Borderland Derby at Sunland Park. He also finished second in the track's $500,000 WinStar Derby. Rugula, a 3-year-old filly, placed in two stakes this spring for trainer Grant Forster, including the Grade 2, $250,000 Fantasy. She went on to finish seventh in the Kentucky Oaks.

The successes have lifted the Kirkwood stable to $888,270 in earnings from just 29 starts this year entering Monday, and that ranks them 13th among all owners in North America. Their earnings, in fact, already have surpassed their richest season, 2003, when their horses earned $590,102.

"They're having their best year ever right now, and deservedly so," said Puhich, who has trained for the Kirkwoods for about 15 years. "They've put a lot into the game, and deserve the good things that happen to them."

Puhich said Southern Africa came out of the Lone Star Derby in excellent shape, and was scheduled to ship to Arlington Park on Tuesday. He will fly into Louisville, Ky., then van from there into Chicago. Puhich has a string of horses for the first time at Arlington, and also is stabled at Santa Anita.

"He came back really, really good, probably the best he's come out of any of his races," said Puhich. "He was really sharp the next morning."

Puhich said there are a number of next-race options for Southern Africa.

"We're probably leaning toward the Belmont Stakes, but we're going to just see what happens in the Preakness," he said, adding that the Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows or Ohio Derby at Thistledown are two other possible spots. "He's centrally located in Chicago, so we can kind of go anywhere we want. But right now, it just depends on what happens in the Preakness."

Jon Court rode Southern Africa in the Lone Star Derby, Court's second win in the race. Court won the Lone Star Derby in 2001 with Percy Hope.

Tough trip for Awesome Twist

Awesome Twist, who finished 11th as the favorite in the Lone Star Derby, emerged from the race in good order and was scheduled to return to his New York base on Tuesday, said his trainer, John Kimmel.

Awesome Twist was making his two-turn and stakes debut in the Lone Star Derby.

"He seems to be okay," said Kimmel from New York. "I don't think he had the greatest of trips. He kind of got in behind a lot of traffic, got banged around two or three times, and it looked to me like his lack of experience and maybe not a fondness for the surface kind of took its toll on him."

Kimmel said the Grade 2, $150,000 Dwyer at 1 1/16 miles at Belmont Park on July 4 is among the races he will consider for Awesome Twist upon his return to New York.

"We'll probably get a couple of breezes and see where we're at with him, and make a decision about whether to go back into an allowance condition or go after another stakes," he said. "We'll probably stick around here. Maybe the Dwyer, but maybe we'll have enough time to get an allowance race into him prior to that."

Awesome Twist won two seven-furlong allowances heading into the Lone Star Derby, and owned the field's co-highest last-race Beyer Speed Figure.

* Free Thinking, Rare Cure, Goosey Moose, and Excessiveplea-sure will meet in an excellent Wednesday night feature. The 1 1/16-mile allowance has an optional claiming price of $62,500.