03/16/2005 1:00AM

Out to buck several trends

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Wilko is out to defy history by becoming the first BC Juvenile winner to capture the Kentucky Derby.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - He won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, defeating the likes of Afleet Alex, Roman Ruler, and Sun King, and he wasn't far off Declan's Moon in the Hollywood Futurity. That, however, was all that was seen of Wilko last year in this country, and since he has now been absent from the races for the past three months, he has again become something of a forgotten horse in the buildup to the Kentucky Derby.

That all could change on Saturday. Wilko at long last will make his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 2, $250,000 for the Kentucky Derby. He will be attempting to become the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to capture the Derby, the first horse to win the Derby off just two preps since Sunny's Halo in 1983, and the first horse to win the Derby after beginning his racing career on another continent since Canonero II invaded from Venezuela in 1971.

Underestimating this colt, however, has its price.

"He's been put through a lot, this little guy," his trainer, Craig Dollase, said Wednesday morning at Hollywood Park, where Wilko has trained since the Breeders' Cup. "He seems to rise to the occasion. He's a plain Jane around the barn. He's easy on himself. But you put him in competition, and you see that competitive spirit come out."

That was on display in the Breeders' Cup. Wilko was seemingly done three furlongs out, but he stayed the trip and re-rallied to prevail at odds of 28-1.

The Breeders' Cup did not settle the 2-year-old championship, however, so Wilko came back seven weeks later to face unbeaten Declan's Moon in the Hollywood Futurity. On the eve of the race, Wilko developed a quarter crack on the inside of his left front hoof. Despite that, he courageously finished third, only one length behind Declan's Moon and a nose behind Giacomo.

"We were on pins and needles going into the Futurity," Dollase said. "It was a credible performance, considering the circumstances."

Wilko at that point had raced a dozen times, including 10 times in Britain. Dollase decided to give Wilko a well-deserved break, then point for the Santa Catalina Stakes on March 5.

"He didn't get a break before he came over here," Dollase said. "He needed to acclimate after the Futurity."

But the wet weather that plagued Southern California in January and February interrupted Wilko's schedule, and delayed his return by two weeks.

"Obviously we missed a little time with the weather, so the screws are not totally tight. May 7," Dollase said, referring to the date of the Derby, "is still a ways away. He's headed in the right direction. There haven't been any issues with the foot."

The quarter crack has not grown out yet, so Wilko still has a patch on the inside of his left front hoof. That appears to be his only blemish. Although Wilko is still small in height, standing a shade more than 15 hands, he has filled out, especially through the hindquarters. His chestnut coat, which includes a small star on his forehead, was glistening in the sunshine on Wednesday morning.

A majority interest in Wilko was purchased by Paul Reddam from Susan Roy while Wilko was still in Britain. He was spotted there by Jamie McCalmont, a British bloodstock agent who worked for several years in Southern California and has numerous contacts here. McCalmont thought that Wilko would make the transition to dirt racing, since he is a son of Awesome Again.

Jeremy Noseda trained Wilko through the Breeders' Cup, but once Wilko was left in this country, Dollase took over.

"Jeremy told me that he wasn't one of those flashy types of horses on the track," Dollase said. "You have to train him in company, because if you train him by himself, he's just an ordinary horse. He's a very push-button horse. He's a smart horse, too."

Wilko has won just 3 of 12 starts, but has finished in the top three 10 times. By virtue of his rich payday in the Breeders' Cup, he has plenty of graded-stakes earnings, the criterion to determine the Derby field should more than the maximum 20 horses enter, as happened last year.

"That's one thing we don't have to worry about," Dollase said. "He's got plenty of starts under his belt. Now we've just got to get these two preps into him."

In other Derby developments:

* The 1 1/16-mile San Felipe will feature six members of the top 25 of Derby Watch. In addition to Wilko, the field is expected to include Consolidator, Don't Get Mad, Giacomo, Golden Shine, and Roman Ruler.

* Six other Derby Watch members are racing in three other important 3-year-old stakes on Saturday. Sun King should be an overwhelming favorite in the Grade 3, $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby, Galloping Grocer and Naughty New Yorker head the field in the Grade 3, $150,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, and Afleet Alex, Greater Good, and Rockport Harbor square off in the Grade 3, $250,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.

* Greg Gilchrist, the trainer of Lost in the Fog, continues to act as though he is anything but eager to put his unbeaten, speedy colt on a path toward the Derby.

"We're kind of undecided what direction we're going to go," Gilchrist said. "He's still tired from his last race. Let me put it this way - I wouldn't want to run him this week. The first thing we have to decide is if we're going to go along the route to the Derby or keep doing what we're doing."

Gilchrist said owner Harry Aleo would likely pay the $6,000 late nomination fee to the Triple Crown, which is due March 26, just to keep all options open for Lost in the Fog.

DERBY WATCH

WHO'S HOT: Bellamy Road, who was an overpowering winner in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, and Uncle Denny, who captured the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, are the newest additions to the top 25 of Derby Watch. Bellamy Road is 30-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Uncle Denny is 50-1. Afleet Alex has taken over the role of favorite. He is 6-1 on Watchmaker's line. The biggest move of the past week was made by High Limit, who is down to 10-1 from last week's 30-1 following his victory in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

WHO'S NOT: Declan's Moon, who had been the Derby favorite, is off the list because of a knee chip that will sideline him through the Triple Crown. Scipion was dropped following his disappointing performance in the Louisiana Derby.

ON THE BUBBLE: Vicarage was second to High Limit in the Louisiana Derby. Another Todd Pletcher trainee, Proud Accolade, is training again after missing the Louisiana Derby because of illness. Survivalist could move onto the list with a top performance in the Gotham Stakes on Saturday at Aqueduct.