12/26/2007 1:00AM

Into Mischief at head of class

EmailInto Mischief became the leader of the West Coast Kentucky Derby hopefuls with a 1 1/4-length victory under Victor Espinoza in the CashCall Futurity.P

ARCADIA, Calif. - Wayne Hughes stood on the staircase overlooking the Hollywood Park winner's circle, clutching three free sweatshirts and beaming like he'd just won a $403,000 pot, which he had.

"I wouldn't have even come if they didn't have a giveaway," Hughes cracked. "Now I've got Christmas presents for everybody - for next year."

Hughes can be forgiven if, long about mid-April, he starts thinking that Christmas 2008 might come early. The victory of his Harlan's Holiday colt Into Mischief in the $753,000 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood last Saturday was good enough to conjure nothing less than Kentucky Derby dreams.

The winning margin of 1 1/4 lengths was conclusive, and Into Mischief's final time of 1:40.82 for the 1 1/16 miles was flashy, even though it was accomplished over a souped up Cushion Track surface that seemed more suited to Nascar. Into Mischief was on the engine from the start, as Victor Espinoza deftly angled in from post 10 to lay second around the quick first turn, and then prompted the pace for the rest of the race, never looking like anything but a winner.

Still, this is no time to rest on laurels. There are serious footsteps. The three colts who crossed the line clustered in the immediate wake of Into Mischief have the look of true contenders as the 2008 Derby trail unfolds.

Runner-up Colonel John, a son of Tiznow, overcame some mid-race errors to close like a horse on a mission. Third-place Massive Drama, trained by Bob Baffert, had beaten Into Mischief once already and, after chasing the pace, was hardly giving up at the end. Fourth-place Monba, 2 for 2 for Todd Pletcher going in, made up tons of encouraging ground. None of their people dared to act discouraged.

"I learned that he probably needs to go further," said Eoin Harty, trainer of the favored Colonel John. "He's got a really good kick but it takes him a while to get going. I might need to put a bigger shadow roll on him - it's happened in his last two races now when he gets to the backside he tosses his head from the dirt. Would have been nice to win, sure, but he ran well. And the mile and a quarter won't be a problem."

The Futurity came together deep in apparent quality, despite an abundance of hard evidence beyond Colonel John's victory in the Real Quiet Stakes and the one-two performance by Massive Drama and Into Mischief in the Prevue Stakes. Both of those races were at Hollywood Park, but they were good enough to translate into heightened expectations.

As a result, the Futurity turned out to be a race that exposed both strengths and weaknesses in a pack of talented 2-year-olds barely two weeks from turning 3. Although, in the case of Into Mischief, it does take some creativity to find apparent fault.

He'll never go unnoticed. A burnished bay with black mane and tail, Into Mischief's got a white ankle on each side and a blaze that was applied with a paint roller, only the colt wouldn't hold still. On Wednesday morning, back home in Richard Mandella's barn at Santa Anita, Into Mischief took a turn in the sunshine with assistant Mike Wilson and then, a little while later, he lounged peacefully at the back of his stall as his trainer peered in. Neither one of them seemed worried about the future.

It has been a good year for the Mandella 2-year-olds. Into Mischief and Norfolk Stakes winner Dixie Chatter emerged as the best of a promising bunch, and there are a few more left to emerge as early 3-year-olds, thanks to Mandella's don't push policy. The trainer has a number of accomplished 2-year-olds sprinkled throughout his Hall of Fame portfolio, including Afternoon Deelites, Dixie Union, Action This Day, and Halfbridled, but none has translated into success yet at a Derby, a Preakness, or a Belmont.

If Into Mischief takes Mandella and Hughes on a Triple Crown ride, it will be via races like the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 2 and the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. For now, though, the trainer just wants to enjoy the view.

"He came in just another nice looking 2-year-old, and he's grown like a weed," Mandella said. "We just thought he had a lot of balance and had the look of a runner about him. And we liked the way he moved in the preview. We didn't know anything about the sire at the time, and the damside was usable, wasn't anything great, wasn't bad. We just liked him, and we were kind of surprised we paid only $180,000 for him."

That figure was paid by Hughes at the Ocala sale of 2-year-olds last March, a number that fits comfortably into the Mandella price range. Hughes has been known to buy million-dollar yearlings, which tends to make the trainer fret. Mandella always has had a problem spending other people's money.

"They make you nervous, and kind of take the fun out of it," Mandella said. "But with Wayne, there's no pressure. He tells you to forget that part of it. He knows it doesn't make any difference. Either they're good or they're not."

As far as this crop is concerned, Into Mischief is one of the good ones. And he's got company.