11/30/2003 12:00AM

Krone steals Derby on Sweet Return

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - On the day that Hollywood Park honored Julie Krone by turning her into a bobblehead, Krone made 12 other riders look like knuckleheads.

Krone lulled her rivals to sleep in Sunday's $600,000 , and that enabled the 16-1 shot Sweet Return to lead from start to finish in the 1 1/4-mile, Grade 1 grass race.

Sweet Return ($35.40), racing over a firm course, set pokey fractions of 25.35 seconds, 51.04 seconds, and 1:17.49 for the first six furlongs. Sweet Return then threw a pair of sub 24-second quarter miles at his rivals, giving them no chance to make up ground. When the final half-mile was run in 46.78 seconds, those behind Sweet Return were giving futile chase.

"Three-quarters in 1:17. I can't believe those guys took back off that," said winning trainer Ron McAnally, who finished one-two when Fairly Ransom got up for second.

The stretch run was exhilarating. The field was so bunched nearing the wire that the first 10 runners were separated by a mere two lengths, and the entire 13-horse field of 3-year-olds was separated by just 4 1/2 lengths. Sweet Return beat Fairly Ransom by a half-length, with 3-1 favorite Kicken Kris another half-length back in third.

"He kept pulling away and waiting, pulling away and waiting," Krone said. "He took this huge breath around the turn and flicked his ears back up. I said, 'Oh, man, do I have some horse.'"

Alex Solis, who started from post 13 with Fairly Ransom, thought his wide trip and the slow pace cost him.

"Much the best," Solis said. "I looked every which way I could. I had to get lucky, but it wasn't meant to be."

Sweet Return was winning for only the third time in 14 starts, and for the second time in nine starts since being acquired in his native Great Britain by John Brunetti's Red Oak Stable and turned over to McAnally. He won a division of Del Mar's Oceanside Stakes this summer, was third to stablemate Fairly Ransom in the Del Mar Derby, and most recently finished second in the Oak Tree Derby at Santa Anita on Oct. 4.