12/23/2001 12:00AM

For now, Siphonic is the leader by a pole

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When Siphonic walked into the paddock before the Hollywood Futurity, his trainer, David Hofmans, at first worried that he had gone too easy with the colt. Hofmans had been trying to walk a tightrope between preparing Siphonic properly for a Grade 1 race and allowing the colt room for future progress. He did not want to squeeze Siphonic, but he did not want a fat tub of goo, either.

"I thought he was too fat," Hofmans said. "I was hoping I had him tight enough."

Fifteen minutes later, Hofmans saw that his handywork was just right. Siphonic ran off to a powerful victory in the Futurity, and the effort took so little out of him that he was trying to nip at whomever got near his stall the next morning.

"I was thinking about his future," Hofmans said. "I wanted a fresh horse for what he's going to do."

Siphonic is about to embark on the most demanding task of any horse's career. In a little more than four months, the Kentucky Derby will be run at Churchill Downs. Right now, Siphonic is among the top three contenders for the Derby, along with European-based Johannesburg and Kentucky-based Repent, who finished in front of Siphonic in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

At Santa Anita, however, Siphonic is undisputedly number one. He is the early favorite for the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 6, the West Coast's pivotal prep race for the May 4 Kentucky Derby.

Siphonic occupies the same position held one year ago by Point Given, who went on to win the Santa Anita Derby, as well as the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational, and Travers Stakes. Point Given is a leading contender for Horse of the Year and a cinch to be named champion 3-year-old colt.

Siphonic heads a group of California-based 3-year-olds of 2002 that is in a state of flux. By virtue of seamlessly making the transition from sprints to routes, Siphonic is clearly a national leader and a top prospect for the 1 1/4-mile Derby. Fonz's, who was second to Siphonic in the Futurity after a wide trip, also has displayed enough promise to bear watching closely.

But two other prominent California 2-year-olds from this past year - Came Home and Officer - are not heading down the Derby trail.

Trudy McCaffery, a co-owner of Came Home, said the group that owns the colt - including Will Farish Jr.'s Lane's End Farm - believes Came Home is best suited for races up to one mile. So, Came Home's major spring objective will not be the Kentucky Derby, but, rather, the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park. "It's the right thing to do for the colt," McCaffery said of Came Home, who is trained by Paco Gonzalez.

Officer has fallen so far off the radar that he's not even at the track. Following Officer's third-place finish in the Hollywood Futurity, trainer Bob Baffert sent him to the nearby Thoroughbred Corporation farm of owner Prince Ahmed Salman for a brief rest.

"I did him a favor. He needs a vacation," Baffert said. Like Came Home, Officer's immediate future is around one turn.

Bobby Frankel remains high on Labamta Babe, who was fourth in the Hollywood Futurity, but the atmosphere is ripe for late-developing colts to make a significant impact this winter and spring. Some prospects are running on the opening-day card, in a maiden race and an allowance race, both at six furlongs.

Popular, who was second in the Hollywood Prevue, faces the impressive maiden winner Pelirrojo, the comebacking Werblin, and the swift Eastern invader Onthedeanslist in the third race, an entry-level allowance.

The fourth race, for maidens, features Sunday Break, who was a sharp second in a highly rated maiden race at Hollywood Park in his debut for trainer Neil Drysdale. Baffert has high hopes for True Monarch, who makes his first start in that race.

Baffert has won the Santa Anita Derby four times in the last six years, and he had scores of 2-year-olds to sift through this year. In addition to Popular and True Monarch, his best prospects include Danthebluegrassman, who won the Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate Fields, the recent maiden winner China Grind, and the regally bred Strive, who is still a maiden.

High Thunder, who raced last summer before having a chip removed from an ankle, Liberty Run, and the unraced Shadow Hawk also could make an impact for Baffert.

Cottonwood Cowboy, who beat Danthebluegrassman in a 7 1/2-furlong allowance race at Hollywood Park, will get a chance to stretch out in the Grade 2, $150,000 Santa Catalina Stakes on Jan. 19, trainer Christopher Paasch said Sunday. Paasch also hopes to get Kamsack, the Del Mar Futurity runner-up, back in time for at least one prep before the Santa Anita Derby.

Also worth following is the Julio Canani-trained Taillevent, who won a highly rated maiden race at Hollywood on Nov. 25, beating Sunday Break and Liberty Run.

Officer's absence will have an impact on California-bred stakes, too. First up is Friday's California Breeders' Champion Stakes, which should lure recent maiden winner Kedington, who is trained by Gonzalez and owned by McCaffery and John Toffan.

The California-bred filly division, which has a similar seven-furlong, $150,000 stakes race on Friday, appears to have more depth now, led by Jenine Sahadi-trained Bella Bella Bella. Lady George, the upset winner of the California Cup Juvenile Fillies, also is scheduled for that race.