06/30/2004 11:00PM

Marquis Downs: Derby prep

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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan - A pair of 2003 stakes winners and a well-bred maiden winner should vie for favoritism in Saturday's $5,000 Saskatoon Handicap for 3-year olds at Marquis Downs.

The Saskatoon Handicap will be contested over six furlongs and is the first local step toward the $15,000 Saskatchewan Derby, a 1 1/16-mile race here Sept. 11.

Juvenile stakes winners Stage Whisper and Royal Rush faced each other four times last year, with Stage Whisper finishing ahead of Royal Rush three times. But Royal Rush defeated Stage Whisper when he won his maiden in the Prairie Lily Sales Stakes.

Stage Whisper won the male splits of the Saskatchewan Mare Futurity and the Western Heritage Stakes, with Royal Rush finishing second in both races, but he could manage only a third-place finish to Royal Rush in the Prairie Lily.

Royal Rush, the sale-topper from the local 2002 yearling sale, has started twice this spring. His best result was a fifth facing older horses in a two-other-than allowance.

Stage Whisper has made just one start in 2004, finishing last of five versus $20,000 claimers at Stampede Park June 11. Stage Whisper was beaten 6 1/4 lengths and the six-furlong race was run in a quick 1:11.80.

Looking to score a mild upset in the Saskatoon is Devil's Nugget, a gelding by Devil His Due and out of Rattle for Gold, who was the top filly on the grounds for a number of seasons in the early 1990's.

Devil's Nugget has run just once, destroying a field of maidens by 8 3/4 lengths here June 19.