02/05/2004 12:00AM

Perfect Moon takes derby test

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PHOENIX - For most of its existence, the Turf Paradise Derby was not known as a race that produced top-class 3-year-olds. How times have changed.

Startac, the 2001 winner, made it to the Kentucky Derby, running 10th, and went on to become a Grade 1 winner on turf. Captain Squire, winner of the 2002 Turf Paradise Derby, turned into a graded-stakes sprinter. The one-two finishers from last year's Turf Paradise Derby, Robledo and Siberland, were headed in the direction of Louisville, Ky., until injuries derailed them.

Seven are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby, a 1 1/16-mile race that is part of a stakes tripleheader at Turf Paradise, and at least one of them has the potential to become a Kentucky Derby candidate.

Perfect Moon, trained in Southern California by Doug O'Neill, already has shown he can hold his own against some of the elite in his class. A 3-year-old son of Malibu Moon, Perfect Moon was among the best of his class early at 2. At Hollywood Park, he ran second in the Haggin, then won the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile and the Grade 2 Best Pal. He went on to finish third in the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity and in the Grade 2 Norfolk at Santa Anita.

O'Neill resisted the temptation to send Perfect Moon to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and instead ran him in the $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs Dec. 5. Perfect Moon stalked the pace and finished well to be third, beaten only a length.

In his last start, Perfect Moon finished sixth Jan. 17 in the Grade 2 Santa Catalina at Santa Anita, a race won by one of the West's prime Derby candidates, St Averil. If any of the Turf Paradise Derby contestants is poised to begin a run at the Kentucky Derby, it's Perfect Moon. Martin Pedroza comes in from Southern California to ride.

Another contender in the Turf Paradise Derby is Point Dume, who won the Rattlesnake here Jan. 18 via a disqualification. Trained in Southern California by Bob Hess Jr., Point Dume dueled for the lead in the Rattlesnake and finished second behind Western Ridge. But the stewards ruled that Western Ridge caused interference during the race, and they placed him fifth.

Point Dume has had a race over the track, and that may help him in his bid to upset Perfect Moon.