01/11/2007 1:00AM

Midnight Lute wants two turns


NEW YORK - Although it seems awfully premature, in a sense the road to the 2007 Kentucky Derby begins Saturday with two graded stakes races for 3-year-olds on the national stakes calendar. At Santa Anita, one of the stakes offerings is the Grade 2, $150,000 San Rafael. And at Fair Grounds, the Grade 3, $100,000 Lecomte Stakes heads a card that also includes four other $100,000 stakes events. Both the San Rafael and the Lecomte will be run at one mile.

Saturday's richest stakes event is Santa Anita's Grade 2, $200,000 San Fernando Breeders' Cup.

San Fernando Breeders' Cup

Brother Derek is a very nice colt, and it might be foolish to bet against him here as he stretches out in distance after all the trouble he had last time out in the Malibu. But the whole world saw the trouble he had in the Malibu and knows he's better going two turns, meaning he will offer no betting value.

I like Midnight Lute to post a mild upset. Midnight Lute also ran in the Malibu, and he ran very well. He was sluggish leaving the gate, got shuffled back after making a run into contention, went very wide into the stretch, and made another run to miss second by a head, the first time in his career he finished worse than second. The thing that strikes me most about Midnight Lute is it looks like he's been crying to go two turns but never has in a career that's been marked by fits and starts. Well, he finally gets his chance to go long now, and I suspect he will blossom.

Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap

The entry of Fort Prado and Mystery Giver is going to be tough to beat. Fort Prado has won 9 of 16 starts over the last two campaigns, and Mystery Giver, a noted lover of the Fair Grounds turf course, closed willingly into a slow pace most recently. But Purim has an excellent chance to beat them.

Purim was the favorite when he and Mystery Giver faced each other last month in the Buddy Diliberto Memorial, and after racing in contention to midstretch, Purim tired to finish sixth. But that was Purim's first start in six months, and it is perfectly plausible that he was simply a short horse. It is interesting to note that although the sample size is small, his trainer, Tom Proctor, has excellent numbers with horses making their second start off a long layoff Purim was returning from. Of equal importance is that Purim projects to sit a perfect, ground-saving trip, stalking the early pace.

Lecomte Stakes

Hard Spun might be a freak. He is bred to be one, being by Danzig and out of the stakes winner Turkish Tryst. But for a colt who romped in all three of his starts last year, he didn't run that fast. His highest Beyer Figure was an 87, and that was achieved on a sloppy track. So in the expectation that he'll be a short price, I'll try and beat him with Izzy's Halo.

Izzy's Halo kept good company last year. He was second in his debut and followed with another second to Street Sense, who went on to dominate the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and who will likely win a divisional Eclipse Award. While still a maiden, Izzy's Halo was a narrowly beaten second in the Cradle Stakes. And when he notched his first career win last month at Fair Grounds, he won big - the 90 Beyer he earned is the best last-out Beyer in this field.

But what's particularly intriguing about Izzy's Halo is that he rated just off the early pace when he ran so well in the Cradle. If he can do that again Saturday, it would put him in the garden spot behind a potential battle for the early lead.