03/10/2005 12:00AM

Pitnick finds it warm in spotlight

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - As trainer Brian Pitnick prepares for the biggest race of his young training career, bringing Stellar Magic into Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, the excitement is tempered by the stress.

"I'm finding out when you have a good horse, it's less fun and more business," said Pitnick, 45, a former lawyer who has been training for 2 1/2 years. "It's exciting, but I'm feeling pressure. This is my Kentucky Derby."

Pitnick owns Stellar Magic in partnership with Ken and Kamela Duncan. After Stellar Magic's impressive victory in the San Mateo Mile on Feb. 12, offers for him have been bandied about.

"If he runs very well, there will be more pressure to sell, and we'll probably hear from people with bigger pocketbooks than me," said Pitnick. He said his star would be nominated to the Triple Crown if he wins the El Camino Real.

Pitnick claimed his first horse, I'm Enough, for $8,000 in early 1988 and has owned horses ever since.

"We used to call him 'Not Enough' because he never ran better than third," Pitnick said.

After losing I'm Enough, Pitnick claimed Tiz Stealing, who never seemed to lose. When Pitnick took a 3 1/2-year sabbatical from his law practice to clear up his father's estate, moving onto property his father had owned in Carmel Valley, Calif., Tiz Stealing lived in the family's back yard.

"When the time came to come back to the real world, I came as a trainer rather than a litigator," said Pitnick.

Before taking out his trainer's license in late 2002, Pitnick worked for A.L. Diaz and helped run the stable after Diaz suffered a stroke. Pitnick purchased Stellar Magic, a son of Western Fame, at last spring's Barretts sale on the advice of friend and ex-trainer Fred Davis.

"Fred has a good eye for horses and really likes Western Fame, so I wasn't surprised when he pointed him out," Pitnick said. "He was good-looking and had a lot of presence about him."

Pace battle brewing

Big Top Cat and Uncle Denny could hook up in a pace duel in the El Camino Real.

Uncle Denny won his first three starts - one on a disqualification - before finishing fourth in the 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes on Feb. 8, when he was rated early and tried to lug out around the first turn. "That was the game plan, not to be on the lead," trainer Rafael Becerra said.

But that game plan will change Saturday. Becerra said that Uncle Denny, a wire-to-wire winner in the California Breeders' Championship, would be allowed to use his natural speed. Russell Baze will ride.

"If another horse goes crazy, he can sit [off the pace], but I'll just leave it to Russell," Becerra said.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said he expects Big Top Cat to show speed as well.

"I think there is some speed in the race, but he'll be part of the [pace] scenario," Lukas said.

Tough spot for Vasilias's comeback

Vasilias, owned by Theresa and Edward Denike, will make his first start in the El Camino Real since winning a maiden sprint on Sept. 5. He has worked well for his comeback, including a 1:11.20 six-furlong drill, but this is a tough test.

"We've always had high hopes," trainer Lloyd Mason said. "We think a lot of this horse. After he broke his maiden, the owners wanted to do the right thing and turned him out.

"He suffered a cut on his hock that took about six weeks to heal and kept him at the farm. We were hoping to get a couple preps for him, but he's worked well."