03/26/2004 12:00AM

Lion Heart leads derby pack


ARCADIA, Calif. - Lion Heart is the horse to catch Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby, which is expected to attract eight or nine runners and is widely considered the strongest 3-year-old stakes of the season.

In addition to Lion Heart, who won the Hollywood Futurity, the principal contenders for the 1 1/8-mile derby include Louisiana Derby winner Wimbledon; Rock Hard Ten, who is 2 for 2; two-time graded stakes winner Imperialism; and graded stakes winner St Averil.

The Santa Anita Derby field, with riders, is taking shape like this: Lion Heart, Mike Smith; Wimbledon, Javier Santiago; Rock Hard Ten, Gary Stevens; Castledale, no rider; Imperialism, Victor Espinoza; St Averil, Tyler Baze; Quintons Gold Rush, Corey Nakatani; Lucky Pulpit, no rider; and Totally Platinum, no rider.

Star Parade wavering on Apple Blossom

One reason trainer Darrell Vienna is reconsidering plans to ship Grade 1 winner Star Parade to Oaklawn for the Grade 1 Apple Blossom next Saturday is what he perceives as a lack of backstretch surveillance at Oaklawn Park.

"I've gotten accustomed to the Grade 1 surveillance in California, and we're going to look favorably on jurisdictions that provide that," Vienna said.

The California Horse Racing Board provides race-day surveillance on horses entered in Grade 1 races in California, and Vienna's concern is a similar program is not in place in Arkansas.

Star Parade won the Santa Maria Handicap on Feb. 16 and was second to Adoration in the Santa Margarita on March 14. Vienna said he has not abandoned the Apple Blossom entirely and would review plans after a Saturday workout. A 5-year-old bred in Argentina, Star Parade would be the likely pacesetter in the Apple Blossom.

Break time for Truly a Judge

While Unfurl the Flag tries in the Grade 2 Potrero Grande to become the first horse to win a graded stakes after being claimed by trainer David Bernstein, the most successful horse Bernstein claimed is enjoying a well-deserved vacation. Truly a Judge has won five races and more than $375,000 since Bernstein claimed him for $20,000 in October 2001, and will return in the summer.

"He'd been over two years of training without a stop, so we gave him a little time off," Bernstein said.

Truly a Judge, who won the $145,000 Claiming Crown at Philadelphia Park in 2002 and placed in several minor stakes, is owned by three of the partners who also own Unfurl the Flag - Tom Harris, Alan Aidekman, and Gaylord Ailshie. A winner of 8 of 36 overall, Truly a Judge is expected to return in the spring-summer meet at Hollywood Park.

Palma gets back in game

After being away from the game for 2 1/2 years, trainer Hector Palma has resumed his career and expects to have 12 to 15 horses within the next few months. Palma, 67, stepped away from training after his wife, Becky Rodriguez, suffered an aneurism and required extended physical therapy after 40 days in a coma. Although Palma refers to Rodriguez as his wife - they have been together for 30 years - he said they never got married.

"She was my right hand when I had the biggest stable," Palma said, adding that she is now doing well. "She walks with a cane, but she's doing pretty good, and that is better than winning any race in the world."

Palma said that when Rodriguez's condition improved in late 2003, "She finally said, 'It's time for you to go back.' "

Palma's former stakes horses include Pen Bal Lady, Notorious Pleasure, Fatih, and Slew's Royalty. He currently has six horses. One Two Punch, a filly partly owned by his wife's racing stable, Granja Mexico, has a "good chance" in her race next week, Palma said. Palma said Slew's Royalty, who became a top California sire, was sent to Mexico two years ago.

Comeback smooth so far for Candy Ride

Candy Ride continues to make progress toward his comeback. An unbeaten Argentinian, Candy Ride worked five furlongs Friday in 1:00, breezing, for trainer Ron McAnally. Candy Ride, 6 for 6, has not raced since a 3 1/4-length win over Medaglia d'Oro in the Pacific Classic last summer at Del Mar. McAnally said that Candy Ride "worked good; he's getting there little by little."

Saint Afleet's problem remains a mystery

An unspecified ailment precluded 3-year-old stakes winner Saint Afleet from entering the Winstar Derby on Sunday at Sunland Park. Trainer Craig Dollase declined to identify the severity of the problem. When asked how long the 3-year-old might be out of action, Dollase said, "I don't know, it's day to day." Winner of the Sunshine Millions Dash and one of the top 3-year-old sprinters in California, Saint Afleet has won 3 of 6 and earned $198,021.